EXCLUSIVE: On the eve of Sundance, Oscilloscope has acquired North American rights to The King, the Eugene Jarecki-directed documentary in which the filmmaker takes Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce on a musical road trip along the singer’s geographical touchstones. The film traces where Presley lost himself to excess, a metaphor where where America stands in the era of Donald Trump, he said. Steven Soderbergh is the exec producer on the film, which was shown in early form at Cannes last year. Among the subjects featured in the film are Alec Baldwin, Roseanne Cash, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Mike Myers and Dan Rather.
The subject matter might sound whimsical. Jarecki, who has twice won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has directed such docus as Why We Fight, Reagan and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, makes a case that the journey of Presley from ground breaking singer to a fat drug addict who died on the toilet, is a cautionary tale for this country.
“Like so many Americans, I found myself even before Trump wondering how the hell we got here,” Jarecki told Deadline. “I’ve addressed the question in previous films in different ways, but it dawned on me that there is nothing more American than the rags to riches story of Elvis Presley, this incredible icon who rose in front of us all and who reached a point where he came into conflict with his own success. Like America, Elvis rose like a meteor, he became this colossus and was too young to handle it, and what came from that was the price of power. He ended up turning to all manner of addiction to deal with his demons. He reached out to consumption, drug addiction, vanity, materialism. It dawned on me the more I looked at Elvis, how hauntingly metaphoric it is for the country he left behind.
“I got this idea to take a cross country road trip in his 1963 Rolls Royce, to discover that country, looking through his windshield,” Jarecki said. “My journey coincided with the 2016 election and its aftermath, which has been a period of some of the most seismic convulsion and soul searching in the history of the country, perhaps since the Great Depression. The country has been going through so much division and turmoil and inner inquiry. That meant it was an amazing moment where, if you were going to look out the window of Elvis’ car at the passing landscape, you see how in many ways the country has come to mirror the destiny of her favorite son.
“Elvis died on the toilet and there seemed to be in that a cautionary tale,” Jarecki said. “Those who loved him in the end couldn’t reach him because the power and the money had overwhelmed his authenticity and the artistry that once made him great. I see the same thing happening to America, where power and money have become far more significant in our lives than our democracy.”
I asked if there is connective tissue between Presley and Trump.
“Donald Trump is the antithesis of Elvis Presley, and if anything, he represents all that killed Elvis,” Jarecki said. “Donald Trump is an embodiment of the worst qualities in the American story, all bundled up into one wretched public figure. A person who spouts hate speech, with a history of abuse of women, a demonstrated inclination toward racism. These are all the things the country sees as its own internal struggle. The nation has made strides in these areas, but Donald Trump has not. He is back in the American dark ages, the opposite of Elvis Presley and everything that was beautiful about him.”
Jarecki’s film traces how Presley became corrupted and corroded as success moved him away from his origins, including a love of the black community and its music. Once fat and happy, Presley didn’t evolve.
“Elvis began as an authentic figure, and ends up in the sequined white suit and ends up hanging out with Nixon,” Jarecki said. “At a time when Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Muhammad Ali and others were on the right side of history in the civil rights movement, Elvis wasn’t. He wouldn’t speak out for the black community or against the Vietnam War. Trump isn’t going through any of that metamorphosis. He arrived as the worst of all that, personifying the drumbeat of power and money over democracy, the same drumbeat that overwhelmed Elvis’s artistic authenticity and led to his demise.”
The film was produced in association with ITVS/NDR/BR/Backup Studio. UTA brokered the deal.