“The King” is a stirring new documentary that addresses Elvis Presley’s complex cultural legacy and how it figures into our readings of the American Dream—it’s a movie about frontiers, and what it means to charge toward one. It chiefly stars Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom, which he had painted silver (it was originally a deep, midnight blue) after his mother’s chickens wouldn’t stop pecking at it. The film’s production company bought the car in 2014, when it went up for auction. They decided the best use of their bounty would be to drive it all the way across America, picking up or otherwise engaging a handful of celebrities (including Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, David Simon, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Van Jones, James Carville, and Chuck D) along the way. Some of them recorded songs in the backseat, some of them shared their memories of Presley, and some of them eagerly scoured the compartments for a stiff drink. The film’s writer and director, Eugene Jarecki, told Variety that the Phantom broke down “about two dozen times” in the year he spent at the wheel. “The King” is shot in widescreen CinemaScope format, a nod to both the hugeness of the American landscape and the hugeness of Presley’s ride. It’s glorious to watch the Phantom inch by, gleaming in the late-day sun, cresting each horizon like some stately but slow-moving spacecraft.
The conceit of “The King” is powerful in part because the idea of the road trip is so ingrained in the American sensibility, and in part because Presley himself is such an easy metaphor for what we hope America is, or can be: a place where miraculous things are possible. Presley was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, about a hundred miles southeast of Memphis. He grew up poor, in a shotgun shack that his father, Vernon, built himself, after borrowing a hundred and eighty dollars to purchase the materials. Vernon failed to repay the loan, and, when Presley was three, the house was repossessed. The family eventually moved into a public-housing complex in Memphis. Jarecki and his team interviewed some of his old neighbors: “He was just like one of us,” the gospel singer Earlis Taylor says, before climbing into the back seat and singing a bit of a hymn. Part of Presley’s persistent deification has to do with the ways in which he embodies a very specific and intoxicating American myth: from very little, more.