“Elvis was a hero to most. But he never meant shit to me you see. Straight up racist that sucker was. Simple and plain. Mother f*** him and John Wayne.” So opens the third verse of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, from their seminal 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet. It’s not a line you’d necessarily expect to hear in a documentary about Elvis and you’d probably be even more surprised to hear from the man who wrote and rapped those lines – Chuck D – speaking at length about the man and his legacy. But this isn’t just another film plucked from the seemingly endless production line of music docs that set out to chart the life and work of a musician.
Well, in a way, it is that. But that is just a skeleton onto which director Eugene Jarecki constructs a far richer and more complex body, telling an absolutely fascinating and surprisingly urgent story about the history of America and where it is – and in many ways by extension where we all are – today. You see, Elvis is a metaphor for America. And this isn’t one of those times in which critics go wild for a film and talk at length about their metaphorical theory about a film’s subject, Jarecki explicitly states that the film is setting out to explain America using Elvis as a metaphor.
As metaphors go it’s a pretty good one – all metaphors are by their very nature somewhat flawed, being at least one step removed from the thing they are being related to – and it provides a number of amusing and even horrifying moments in which the people Jarecki speaks to highlight the parallels and what that could mean. The idea that America is currently the fat white jumpsuit Vegas Elvis addicted to Percocet, for instance, or the time when America was the Elvis that pulled himself out of poverty and embodied at least one ideal of what the American dream could be. And then there’s the problematic nature of Elvis’ relationship to race, as Chuck D so succinctly put it in 1990.
But Jarecki isn’t here to bury the ‘King’ and by extension America, he’s here to understand and use this framework to have a discussion, to talk openly and freely about the flawed brilliance of Elvis and the way in which we can learn from those flaws and what made him great. And by Elvis, he and I obviously mean America.
Helping him in this quest is Elvis’ Rolls Royce and a large number of musicians and celebrities – who climb into the back of the Rolls for musical performances and to riff on Elvis and America. These are a particularly varied bunch and when you include the talking heads that Jarecki also inserts into the film, the list becomes rather huge and really rather strange. Ashton Kutcher, for instance, seems like an odd choice, but his comments on how there was a point in his career in which he was more famous than his talents warranted is a stunning piece of self awareness and actually rather thought-provoking. The real star of the film is Van Jones though, who never slides into the back of the Rolls, but he appears as an essential talking head throughout the film, offering searing insights with fierce intelligence and incredible eloquence.
Promised Land is a bit of sprawling imperfect grab bag – to add metaphor upon metaphor one could say the same about America – but if Jarecki stumbles in pulling everything together in the end, you can’t help but feel that there was just so much good stuff he didn’t know quite what to do with it. A tighter edit and a clearer path may have improved the storytelling aspect of the film a little, but it’s not a huge issue, and one wonders if Jarecki wasn’t rather up against the clock with the film. It ends with Trump as president, bringing us to the toxic present in which the American Dream – which Jarekci seems to argue is not so much now dead as never truly alive in the first place – is Donald Trump in the White House, the rich and the poor further divided and everything feeling a lot like it’s going to hell.
To borrow a line from another great songwriter, “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten”. Everything may feel like a nightmare and Jarecki doesn’t exactly paint a hopeful story, but by listening and considering different viewpoints we learn from past mistakes. The end point of Promised Land doesn’t perhaps feel that hopeful, but there’s the slim suggestion that maybe, just maybe, America can pull itself out of the drug addled Vegas years, and instead of dying on the toilet, save itself.