“The King” Director Eugene Jarecki: Elvis Presley’s Rise and Fall Is a Metaphor for America Today

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To understand America in the age of Trump, prize-winning documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki says to look no further than the checkered history of Elvis Presley. Jarecki’s new documentary “The King” opens in New York City this week. It follows the filmmaker as he drives Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce across the United States in an attempt to understand what has happened to America in the age of Trump. “The American dream … wasn’t for anybody if you weren’t a white man,” Jarecki said. “We got here because this nation puts power and money ahead of democracy. We have been hijacked by capitalism.” We speak with Jarecki about Elvis, cultural appropriation, the civil rights movement and the story of this country.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We end today’s show looking at how protests make change in this country, with the prize-winning documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. He’s the director of a new film called The King. And it may not be what you think. In the film, Eugene Jarecki takes Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce on a journey across the United States in an attempt to understand what’s happened to this country.

JAMES CARVILLE: You have no idea how hard he hit American culture.

EUGENE JARECKI: I’m wondering if you could help me: I was trying to find the house that Elvis Presley lived in.

LOCAL RESIDENT: He had no house over here.

VAN JONES: You remember the great Chuck D line.

CHUCK D: Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant [bleep] to me. Straight-up racist, that sucker was, simple and plain. Mother[bleep] him and John Wayne.

BIG MAMA THORNTON: [singing] You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…

JAMES CARVILLE: The thing that Elvis had was black, and it was white. It was all mixed up together.

GREIL MARCUS: He was the voice of the country, at its best and at its worst.

ALEC BALDWIN: America is great when America does great things. Well, America has been doing a lot of bad things.

IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE: I think that the American dream was always someone’s fantasy and someone else’s drunken nightmare.

VAN JONES: That’s where we are in America. We’re in the second act, where it’s just all gone to hell.

BILL O’REILLY: What is wrong with America?

PHIL ITTNER: The world just doesn’t know where America is headed.

UNIDENTIFIED: Where does the country go from here?

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for The King, directed by Eugene Jarecki, who joins us here in our studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this latest film, Eugene.

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, I went across the country in Elvis’s car to try to understand what had happened to the American dream, or what the American dream ever was, because, of course, as we’re learning more and more every day from so many people waking up to the condition we’re in, the American dream was never for everybody. It was for big white men, really. It wasn’t for black people, wasn’t for women. It wasn’t for anybody if you weren’t a white man. And we’re learning that, and I think we’re actually coming up to speed as a country rather quickly, due to the conditions we now face.

AMY GOODMAN: Why focus on Elvis Presley?

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, because what’s more inextricable from the American dream than Elvis Presley? And yet, as he rose, we rose. As he plateaued and sort of became too powerful too fast, so did we. And then he started to realize that he was having fractures in his soul, so he reached out for all manner of quick fix—drugs, carbohydrates, violence, vanity—just as we have. And so, the question is, Elvis died at 42 on the toilet, and I wanted to know: Where are we headed here?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Van Jones in your film, The King.

VAN JONES: Let’s not forget Elvis Presley is living in the ’60s right alongside the Black Power movement, right alongside a huge revolt of the very people whose culture he was, quote-unquote, “inspired by” and, I would say, stole.

CHUCK D: You see Elvis in the middle of no civil rights marches, did you?

EUGENE JARECKI: Say that again?

CHUCK D: I said, you did not see Elvis in the middle of no civil rights marches. You didn’t sight him with Harry Belafonte. Did he?

VAN JONES: But now, think about the alternative Elvis, who goes to the military, who sees a bunch of stuff. Imagine him coming home and marching with Dr. King. He had peers and contemporaries who made braver choices. Marlon Brando marched with Dr. King. Jane Fonda met with the Black Panthers.

REPORTER: Mr. Presley, on the subject of the service, what is your opinion of war protesters? And would you today refuse to be drafted?

ELVIS PRESLEY: Honey, I’d just—I’d just soon to keep my own personal views about that to myself, because I’m just an entertainer, and I’d rather not say.

REPORTER: Do you think other entertainers should keep their views to themselves, too?

ELVIS PRESLEY: No, I can’t even say that.

VAN JONES: I don’t give Elvis Presley a pass, because I know how much power he had, and I know what he could have done with that power.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Van Jones and Chuck D. Eugene Jarecki?

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, it’s just an extraordinary question, of course. You watch Elvis Presley, who comes to fame very much because he’s singing black music—a lot of people say he stole black music. One of the reasons Chuck D, who you heard in the clip, is in the film is that Chuck D is most famous for accusing Elvis of being a racist in “Fight the Power,” an incredible song. And for many people, that’s all they know about Elvis. Well, I interviewed Chuck about what he really meant. Where was the racism? And Chuck is very clear to point out, you can’t call Elvis a racist because he played black music. That’s culture. That’s a beautiful thing. You wouldn’t tell an African-American kid not to play classical piano, he says. You want culture to be shared.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip in the film.

EUGENE JARECKI: Sure.

VAN JONES: Why do you care so much about rescuing Elvis Presley from the clear charge that he was a racial appropriator? You are desperate to rescue this man.

CHUCK D: My conversation never was just this white dude stole black music. I think Sam Phillips was a business guy who tried to sell those records with black folks, could not get them across, found a guy, you know, that was able to sell a black sound with a white face. He knew what to sell to America.

EUGENE JARECKI: Is that, in and of itself, a problem?

CHUCK D: No, I don’t think so. I think culture is culture. Culture is to be shared. You know, you see a black person playing classical piano, you can’t say, you know, because he doesn’t have, quote-unquote, “German roots,” you know, that he can’t play that classical piano good as anybody else. If a person is able to do the twisted stanky leg, and it happens to be Justin Timberlake, I think it’s cool.

EUGENE JARECKI: So, you weren’t—

CHUCK D: I always felt that way. But [bleep], the Beastie Boys brought Public Enemy in, so, I mean, damn.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Chuck D and Van Jones. And you take Elvis Presley’s car across the country.

EUGENE JARECKI: All the way across, to trace his rise and fall, all the way from Tupelo, Mississippi, where he’s born, to Memphis, Nashville, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. But along the way, we bring famous people and not-famous people into the car with us.

AMY GOODMAN: You go to his house.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yes, we go to his birthplace. In fact, we go to the black part of town in Tupelo, where it turns out he lived for a time, and we find that his house is for sale. And we meet the lady who lives in his house, and we ask her about the American dream. And she says, “What American dream? Tupelo is going to hell.” You get to see it from the root. But the most important thing we got to do is bring people in to play music in the car, to talk in the car, in a contemporary landscape. It just happened to us that we drove across the country while the 2016 election was happening. The country was being torn in half.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from The King.

ETHAN HAWKE: Elvis, at every turn, picked money. Should I stay at Sun Records? Should I go to RCA? Well, there’s more money at RCA. Should I take this big giant movie contract even though I don’t have any creative control? Well, it’s the biggest movie deal ever. Let’s take it. Should I go on tour like I want to, or should I take the biggest offer a live performer’s ever had? Which is what he got in in Vegas. Every chance, he prioritized money. And where did it put him? Dead and fat on the toilet at 42.

ALEC BALDWIN: You know, Ronald Reagan was really the person that lit this fuse. Ronald Reagan said, “Would you like to have a new swimming pool, or will children be able to get testing for AIDS?” And what Reagan basically said was, “You want the swimming pool, don’t you? And you should have the swimming pool.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, those last people in the film?

EUGENE JARECKI: Yes. Well, they’re really kind of summing up the way they view the American predicament.

AMY GOODMAN: Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke.

EUGENE JARECKI: Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke. Chuck D speaks right after that. It’s a lot of people all brought together. But the real message of it at that point is, look at what we’re facing. Look at the incredible problem we now have as a nation. We got here because this nation puts power and money ahead of democracy. We have been hijacked by capitalism. And that’s what comes up throughout the film. Everyone we speak to, in one way or another, tells you the way in which the democracy they thought they lived in has been so deeply undermined by the .0001 percent pursuing the country for their interest.

But what can be amazing, in the film, is the way in which I haven’t lost hope at all. I was inspired so much by the people across this country. You know, on this horrible moment in history, look at the social movements being born. Look at the poor people’s movement. Look at Time’s Up. Look at Me Too. Look at Parkland. Look at the extraordinary courage of those young people. So, that happened all across the country. We were seeing that as we went, that as this horrible chapter was forming—and, of course, it’s the most wretched thing we could imagine—but the incredible backlash is so inspiring, and we all must be engaged in that. And that’s a thing, to just not take pride in Emma González and her cronies; it’s to say, “How can I be Emma González?”

AMY GOODMAN: You’re the driver of the car.

EUGENE JARECKI: I am the driver of the car.

AMY GOODMAN: Interviewing people behind you, in the car. They’re singing.

EUGENE JARECKI: They’re playing music in the back. They’re talking about life as they know it today, sometimes about Elvis. But it’s really about America today.

AMY GOODMAN: And The King opens…

EUGENE JARECKI: The King is in theaters right now in New York. It’s at the IFC Center downtown and at the 57th Street Landmark on the West Side. We need people to come out, so that the message of this film can spread.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Jarecki, documentary filmmaker. His latest movie, The King, tracks the rise and fall of Elvis Presley’s career, using it as metaphor for the state of the union and how we arrived at the Trump era.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a full-time news producer position in New York City. Visit democracynow.org.

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