Why I Want to See the Documentary “Promised Land”

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.



On Rolling Stones 100 Greatest


This is an older article but I found myself re-reading it today… my two cents… I wish they had gotten someone else other than Bono to write the Elvis piece. Bono, when called upon to discuss Elvis, always likes to wax poetic more about the celebrity culture that surrounded Elvis and his downfall than to celebrate the uplifting spirit of Elvis’ music.

That’s not to say I disagree with Bono, there’s a time and a place for it. But the Beatles have a glowing “look at how great they were” from Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan gets a “what an amazing songwriter” from Robbie Robertson…
Bono talks about “a voice even bigger than his gut” and “self-loathing” and the breaking of spirit. Quoth Bono, “The big opera voice of the later years — that’s the one that really hurts me.”
Even if you find it underrated, why bring it up if it hurts you? Why not talk about the amazing work at American Sound Studios in Memphis and during That’s The Way It Is, when Elvis was storming Vegas. We get it. He felt trapped by it later, but let’s not act like he didn’t also fucking own Vegas.
Why not talk about a man who, despite the heft of unprecedented fame, loved and respected his fans? Who never forgot where he came from, and never forgot who made it all possible. Why not talk about a man with a generous heart – generous with his money given to not just his hangers-on, but to fans and random people, to the point of breaking the bank?
I get it. We shouldn’t white-wash history. And that’s absolutely correct. But the character assassinations that started in the 80’s led to a stereotype that has now done irreversible damage to the perceptions of, not only the cultural impact, but the music itself. The perpetuation of the mythology by Bono illuminates nothing; teaches nothing to a generation of music fans about the music.
Exactly one song of Elvis’ is mentioned, “Mystery Train.” Dylan and the Fab Four get five songs and eight songs mentioned, respectively. How can you possibly have a discussion about the supposed third greatest artist of all time without talking about his art? Why talk about the voice in terms of scale when you can talk about the voice in terms of message?
Let’s talk about Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song about which Paul Simon is quoted (in Rolling Stone) as saying “When I first heard Elvis perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell can I compete with that?'”

Let’s talk about Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time, Dylan’s personally precious cover. Quote: “That’s the one recording I treasure the most… it was called ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time.’ I wrote it but never recorded it.”

Let’s talk about In The Ghetto, Walk A Mile in My Shoes, and If I Can Dream, socially conscious songs with powerful messages regarding urban poverty and echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. These songs say more about the man than the man ever said about himself.
Let’s talk about You’ll Never Walk Alone, a standard Broadway song Elvis sang with such fervor and passion he turned it into an almost religious inspirational tune tune.
Yes, you can talk about how Elvis was a social and political game-changer, you can talk about the what-ifs, the missed opportunities, the undeveloped potential, and when things “went wrong” and where he might have been “saved.”
But here’s my point: talking about those topics with such disillusionment is easy when you grew up with Elvis, when you are a Bono. But it means absolutely nothing to generations of potential listeners yet to come because they have no frame of reference. It reinforces the false idea that Elvis should only be mentioned in the same breath as “impersonator,” “fat guy in a jumpsuit” and “died on a toilet.”

Bono (and Rolling Stone) completely missed the point. The music deserves to be heard and judged on its own merits. It is, ultimately the reason why people have been drawn to Elvis for over 60 years now. The only explanation needed for why Elvis is #3 on that list has nothing to do with anything Bono wrote. It’s the music. Let it speak for itself.