"I don’t know what the hell you’re doing with this movie,” the head of the road crew says to director Eugene Jarecki midway through The King. The expensive stunt prop for Jarecki’s meandering, celebrity-studded documentary about Elvis Presley—a 1963 Rolls-Royce that once belonged to the King—has just broken down, and as a tow truck carries the immobilized Rolls, the crew member helps Jarecki work out an effective thesis for his directionless film.
Up to that point, The King is mostly an aimless series of interviews about Presley, conducted with actors, musicians, and other assorted celebrities as they perch awkwardly in the backseat of Presley’s Rolls. (“Why didn’t you get one of his Cadillacs?” someone asks, reasonably.)
A few of the interview subjects, like James Carville and Ethan Hawke, have worthwhile things to say; others, like Alec Baldwin and Ashton Kutcher, don’t. Along the way, there are some good musical performances, including one from M. Ward and Mike Coykendall. But it’s not until the flimsy Rolls-Royce premise falls apart that Jarecki’s able to locate the gravitational center of his movie, which explores the career-long corruption of a poor, talented kid from Tupelo.
Under the influence of manager Colonel Tom Parker, Presley rejected art in favor of commerce at almost every step in his career: leaving Sun Records to make slick hits for RCA, putting music on the back burner in order to make lousy movies for Hollywood, and eschewing touring in favor of Vegas showcases in the 1970s.
Through heavy-handed montage, Jarecki draws not-at-all-subtle parallels between Presley’s decline and America’s, and he doesn’t hold back in affirming that Trump’s rise is an unprecedented crisis in US history. But as effective a mirror as Presley might be for modern America, The King’s revelations are rote, best suited for middle-school American Studies classes and Rolls-Royce fetishists.