We visited family in July that summer. As we departed New York, the big Blackout occurred on July 13. A few weeks later, Mark Lindell and I tried to observe a meteor shower in the middle of the night and we talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, learning that earlier in the day that serial killer David Berkowitz (alias the Son of Sam) had been caught. The death watch for comedian Groucho Marx was the entertainment focus for most of the summer, but this potential news story was overshadowed by the sudden death of a 43-year-old king, Elvis Presley.
Being released this weekend, The King is a unique documentary that examines the cultural heritage of Elvis Presley. Taking the King’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, director Eugene Jarecki visits the places that Elvis lived: Tupelo, MS; Memphis, TN; New York; Hollywood, CA and Las Vegas, NV. While many celebrities and Elvis acquaintances are interviewed, Jarekci makes a point of interviewing people on the environment.
We learn that the street where Elvis is born is still impoverished; he was born in a shack in Tulepo, MS. The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas is revealed to be a film noir nightmare. With television central being headquartered in New York, we see Elvis’s television triumphs that introduced The King to millions of homes witnessing the birth of Rock ‘n Roll. It is in Hollywood that Elvis accepts the soft life and which clouded his future judgments.
There is a strain of pessimism that permeates The King. The poverty of Tupelo compliments the decadence of Las Vegas.
If the American dream is about rising above one’s station in life, could The King represent the American nightmare where one is overwhelmed by choosing success?
When in New York riding in the back seat of the Rolls Royce, social commentator Alec Baldwin (known now, in part, for his Trump impersonations on Saturday Night Live) finds fault with the Reagan Administration for today’s social ills. In Blues music, meeting the devil at the crossroads is part of the mythology of success. Ethan Hawke (who also produced) makes the case that Elvis traded his musical passion for a bigger paycheck.
The King is a good, thought-provoking documentary that raises questions. My question is “Why does the media celebrate Elvis on the anniversary of his death?” For the past four decades, Oldies Radio plays “Jailhouse Rock” and a few cable channels will screen Elvis movies. As I’ve gotten older, I have become more impressed with his versatile vocal talents, a variety of Rock, Gospel and opera. When you view these movies, you see a brown-eyed handsome man in his late 20s and early 30s, unlike the bloated grease-painted caricature in his final years.
Another documentary, Generation Wealth is scheduled to open this weekend. From the makers of The Queen of Versailles, the trailer examines America’s obsession with money. With clips of President Trump in both The King and Generation Wealth, one can expect similar arguments about the demise of the American dream. Yet, the American dream is more than just raising capital. It is taking the capital and doing something that raises the quality of life. Both documentaries reminded me of the words of my mentor, Mary Helen Fontaine-Rassi, given on April 15, 1980: “It is important to be successful, but it is more important to know your own success.”