by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki
I didn’t set out to make a biopic about Elvis, so if that is what you are looking for, I’m afraid I may disappoint you. It’s not that Elvis doesn’t interest me; he does. I wouldn’t have spent the last five years of my life making this film if he didn’t. It’s just that, as an American living at this moment in history, I feel an overriding responsibility to understand the forces that have come to shape American and global life. Everywhere you look, things seem to be going off the rails, and I think the only chance we have to better this world is to better understand how we got here. It may sound funny, but I think the life of Elvis Presley holds profound lessons about who we are, how we got so lost, and what we have to do to change course.
At heart, The King is a road movie and a music movie. But it’s also a meditation on things that matter greatly to me and, as I discovered, to a lot of people my team and I met on our journey. We didn’t script anything. We didn’t even have a detailed plan. All we knew was that we were going to drive Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce across America, retracing his footsteps from his birthplace in Mississippi to Memphis, Nashville, New York, Hollywood, Vegas, and countless points between. We didn’t know what we would get, but we could feel, from the first mile, a kind of cognitive dissonance seeing contemporary America, with all its struggles, pass outside the windows of a car that symbolizes wealth and excess.
The cast of characters who joined us on our route was also not pre-arranged; it all happened organically. We’d roll into a town like Nashville knowing virtually no one, but the car would attract attention and, before long, one thing would lead to another and suddenly Emi Sunshine would be sitting in the back of the car, all stuffed in with her beautiful family and all their instruments, singing her heart out. If you haven’t seen Emi yet, you’ll see her in the film. She’s a force of nature and one of the many American voices we were fortunate enough to discover. But as with everything else in the movie, she also stands for something larger—the human spirit, indefatigable despite great challenges. Wherever we went, the country’s hopes, dreams, and challenges were on full display. It’s a huge place but from the poorest inner cities to the forsaken heartland to Fifth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, nearly everyone we met felt that something in the country had changed, and not for the better.
People would ask why we took Elvis’ Rolls-Royce across America, instead of, say, a Cadillac, a Thunderbird, or some other classic American car. My answer is that those cars seem like dream machines. They perpetuate a nostalgia about how things once were, and an Elvis film featuring one of them would inevitably become a rags-to-riches legend of how a country boy rose from nowhere to become the “King.” This might be fine for a simple biopic, but even then I’m not so sure, because that’s where things go wrong, of course—the whole “king” thing.
I mean, wasn’t the whole idea of America that she broke off from the King of England to form a nation of, by, and for the people? And yet, everywhere you look in American life, we idolize money and power above all else. The result? The influence of money in politics grows stronger every day, the defenses against it grow weaker, and our own prospects for true democracy suffer. Whatever the American dream ever was—since it was never available to everyone anyhow—it certainly isn’t alive and well today.