If you took one look at the premise of Eugene Jarecki’s newest documentary, “Promised Land,” which premiered to generally positive reviews at Cannes Film Festival, and then looked at my work, you’d go “oh duh, of COURSE he wants to see it, it’s about Elvis.”
Well, yes, this is true, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The concept behind Promised Land is that Jarecki uses Elvis as a metaphor for America and the American Dream, in a documentary filmed in the middle of the political turmoil of the 2016 election. Early reviews indicate a hypothesis that by this metaphor, America is in its “Fat Elvis” stage, an era of decadence and the cult of celebrity
Here’s where I struggle with a documentary like this. Logically, as a filmmaker and writer, I understand I should walk into this film open-minded. I think Jarecki’s going to present some very interesting arguments from a gamut of talking heads and celebrities, and I think it will be a nuanced film. What is more frustrating however, is where the media is focusing – as is usual with Hollywood, it’s on the most extreme.
Case in point, early reviews frequently mention Chuck D’s appearance in the film – Chuck D having famously hurled an explicit insult at Elvis in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” – but very few of those same reviews actually get to the content of what Chuck D had to say in the film. Knowing myself that Chuck D later gave a more nuanced perspective, stating:
“As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. … My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”
This is a completely valid perspective, and one I completely, entirely, 150% agree with, and it’s also a far cry from the edgy lyrical content of “Fight the Power.” And yet all over the Cannes reviews “Straight up racist” is what is reiterated yet again in front of an America with a 12 second attention span.
I want to see the film because I believe there can still be nuanced conversations about celebrity, culture, and music. I want Eugene Jarecki to prove to me that he’s got more in him as a filmmaker and storyteller than to draw on old cliches about Elvis based on unfair iconography and symbolism that don’t reflect the man behind the image. I’m desperately hoping the reviews are only reflective of Hollywood’s love of focusing on the most extreme elements of Elvis’ life and legacy. I want to believe a 40 or 50-something director has something new or unique to say about Elvis and his place in our culture that a hundred other books, documentaries and articles haven’t already said.
I want to walk into that movie with an open mind, but if the filmmaker isn’t interested in making a film with an open mind and creates the film with a foregone conclusion – that America IS Elvis and Elvis IS America and that the man matters less than the image – and every question asked of the talking heads is a loaded question and every answer shown hand-picked retroactively in the AVID to support that conclusion… well, here’s what the Hollywood reporter has to say about the grand finale:
At least Jarecki is generous enough to allow Presley the last note, almost, towards 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.
And they say Kissin’ Cousins is corny. I can’t wait to see it.