Director Eugene Jarecki has built a well-deserved reputation for impeccably crafted, scrupulously researched and, above all, concisely argued and structured left-leaning documentaries, among them The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Why We Fight and The House I Live In. Sadly, although his latest, Promised Land, may be his most broadly appealing film so far, it’s arguably his messiest and least intellectually satisfying work. A road trip across America in a 1963 silver Rolls Royce that belonged to Elvis Presley, this admittedly often entertaining ramble round Elvis’ life and career unfolds during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, prompting musings from Jarecki and interviewees about how the American Dream itself has entered a decadent phase.
Like Elvis in his bathroom in 1976, the film argues, the country today is bloated, addicted to drugs and dying on the toilet.
Even if one agrees with Jarecki’s progressive political position, making Elvis into a metonym for the nation’s spiritual corruption starts to feel too much like a contrived rhetorical sleight of hand. Jarecki hammers the point home over the film’s nearly two-hour sprawl by deploying a battalion of editors — including Simon Barker, Elia Gasull Balada, Alex Bingham and Laura Israel — who keep cutting back and forth between Elvis stuff and political stuff.
Copious clips of the King (in both conversation and a little more action) from his many TV, newsreel and film appearances are juxtaposed with various talking heads, footage shot by Jarecki in the Rolls, and campaign scenes and speeches, especially from candidate Donald Trump, at one point likened to a corrupt, George III-style monarch, glimpsed throughout crooning his own hits such as, “Get Him Out of Here!” and “Bad Hombres.”
In the end, it’s as if Jarecki has made two films and put them through a digital blender. That said, the material on a segment by segment basis is mostly great. For starters, the study of Elvis as both a man and a cultural icon for good and ill is told with equal measures of sympathy and scrutiny. We hear from several of the surviving musicians who worked directly with him, people who knew him in his youth, close friends and ex-lovers who speak with clear-eyed affection. On the other hand, Jarecki also interviews public intellectual Van Jones, who persuasively decries Presley’s cultural appropriation of black artistry, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, in top form here, on his famous lines from the song “Fight the Power,” about how Elvis “never meant shit to me.”
Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke and Ashton Kutcher all climb into the Rolls’ back seat to mull variously over Elvis or politics or both, and elsewhere Mike Myers chips in his Canadian viewpoint from a living room, slipping in a line he’s used before but that remains a great one: “Celebrity is the industrial disease of creativity.” Dan Rather is interviewed — for no apparent reason, although it looks great — at the top of the Empire State Building.
Less instantly recognizable but no less impressive figures such as veteran showrunner David Simon (blisteringly articulate), Greil Marcus (always a treat) and Luc Sante hold forth on a broad range of roughly relevant topics. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t find more women interviewees outside of Emmylou Harris and few others.
The parade of musical artists who climb aboard and regale listeners with some ace tuneage is less germane to whatever political point Jarecki is trying to make but enjoyable to watch all the same. Tiny but perfectly tuned Emi Sunshine and the Rain let rip with some fine blues licks, while the Stax Music Academy Singers offer a stunning a cappella rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” The song choices have almost nothing to do with Elvis apart from the fact that the genres represented were all ones he drew from, but whatever, it’s fun.
At least Jarecki is generous enough to allow Presley the last note (almost) toward the end of the film, where the aching, exquisite interpretation of “Unchained Melody” he performed for the 1977 Elvis in Concert CBS special is allowed to play out over a montage that includes footage of nuclear explosions, Elmo, the aftermath of Katrina, Miley Cyrus twerking and Monica Lewinsky. There might have been a kitchen sink too, but in the flurry of edits I probably missed it.
Production companies: Ghost in the Machine, Charlotte Street Films, Backup Studio
With: Eugene Jarecki, Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Ashton Kutcher, Greil Marcus, Mike Myers, Dan Rather, Luc Sante, David Simon, Immortal Technique, Linda Thompson, Leo “Bud” Welch
Director-screenwriter: Eugene Jarecki,
Producers: Christopher St. John, David Kuhn, Eugene Jarecki
Executive producers: Barbara Biemann, David Atlan Jackson, Jean-Baptiste Babin, Joel Thibout
Directors of photography: Etienne Sauret, Tom Bergmann
Editors: Simon Barker, Elia Gasull Balada, Alex Bingham, Laura Israel
Music: Robert Miller, Antony Genn, Martin Slattery
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)