20 Mai 2017
The story of the King’s old Rolls Royce soon gives way to an exploration of fame, power, race and everything else in Eugene Jarecki’s dizzying documentary.
Credit where it is due. Eugene Jarecki wanted to make a movie about absolutely everything, and what sounded goofy in the Cannes marketing material turned out to be a worthy on-ramp.
Promised Land threatens at first to be a two-hour documentary about Elvis Presley’s car, but Jarecki shrugs that notion off after a few moments. And not without a degree of self-awareness. “This is a metaphor for Elvis, and the human condition,” someone chuckles from the backseat when the 1963 Rolls Royce breaks down. He even allows a bit of criticism. Writer/producer David Simon smirks, “you should have gotten one of his Cadillacs – an American car,” as mechanics try to revive the lumbering heap of damaged glitz which, by this point in the film, has become a rolling symbol of the doomed American experiment.
Jarecki uses Elvis Presley’s career and influence to help us make sense of fame, power, corruption, self-destructive behaviour and pretty much all the other ills of the world. Why in the hell did poor people vote for that greedy skunk Donald Trump? Many have tried to explain this (and will for a long long time) but few have done so with so many toe-tappin’ clips.
Elvis Presley, as I’m sure you know, grew up dirt poor in the rural south. (“Welcome to the Birthplace,” a Mississippi tour guide, standing on the porch of a small shack, says with a zealot’s tinge in her voice.) He moved to Memphis, admired and absorbed the gospel and R&B of his black neighbours, mixed it with bluegrass and country and changed popular culture and the entertainment economy forever. It was an act of inspired genius (and really good marketing) and also the most blatant example of cultural appropriation in American history. (Yes, Chuck D is in the movie – he hasn’t altered his position, but does have nice things to say about The Beastie Boys. Go figure.)
Does that make Elvis a bad person? Take a step back and ask a bigger question: is America a good country? Hell, go even further: why do human beings believe the obvious lies from powerful forces? Oh, man, I thought this was gonna’ be a road trip down Route 66 in Elvis’ car!
And it is (with some lovely drone shots, too.) Public radio fans who want to see John Hiatt weep just sitting where the King once sat will get that moment. But Jarecki’s maximalist approach is surprisingly effective in elucidating how Western culture has subsisted on lies (“fake news”?) for a very long time now. Elvis’ route from Tupelo to Las Vegas (through Memphis, New York and Hollywood) is a classic rags-to-riches arc that ends in self-destruction. Jarecki, a madman when it comes to cross-cutting, even throws in a shot of Al Pacino as Tony Montana to make sure we get the point.
There are also outstanding moments from Elvis’ career, and the commentary from those who knew him is frequently heartbreaking. Some of the talking heads are expected: Greil Marcus, Luc Sante, Emmylou Harris. Others, like Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers, Ethan Hawke and Ashton Kutcher seem picked at random, but they all come off really well. These are people who haven’t dealt with anything near the degree of notoriety Elvis had, but are quite insightful on the topic of fame. (Kutcher, specifically, should win some sort of plaque for honesty.)
Promised Land has a thesis and it presents it well. The fabrications are catching up with us. America seemed like a new sensation for a time, even if built upon the backs of an an exploited repressed class. Now we’re in a drugged-out haze in a dopey white jumpsuit, fat and bloated and depressed. Donald Trump is our president and we’re about to drop dead in the bathroom.
We’re all doomed. At least that’s what Jarecki appears to be selling. For my own sanity I’d like to take his movie at face value, though, and not believe everything I see on a screen, no matter how convincing.