Elvis As Metaphor

I saw a show the other night called Independent Lens|PBS  The King. PBS is our local public TV channel. (It can also be steamed). Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes the King’s 1963 Rolls-Royce on a road trip across America.The show is presumably about Elvis–the so called King of rock and roll, however it tackles a much larger and current viewpoint(s) on the American Dream vs. American Reality as it cleverly uses the rise an fall of Elvis as a metaphor:

A cross-country road trip in Elvis’ Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, The King is far more than a musical biopic; it’s a penetrating portrait of America at a critical time in the nation’s history and an unflinching investigation into the state of the American dream. The film traces Elvis’ rise and fall from the Deep South to New York, Las Vegas, and countless points between. Alongside this, the film examines America in parallel, from her auspicious founding to her own struggles with excess power up to the acute challenges of today.

I am not a great fan of Elvis Presley per se, however I do admire his early breakthrough work and artistry. What really woke and startled me was/is the selling of the American Dream through Hollywood as the reality for one and all.

“So I think that the American Dream was always someone’s fantasy, and someone else’s drunken nightmare.”

Anthony Bourdain understood this. His final episodes on Parts Unknown–Manhattan’s Lower East Side and The Bronx also focus on this dream vs. fantasy experience mainly through the eyes and lives of groundbreaking creative artists. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s left little room for identifying with any other reality than the big American Dream, “Work hard–get ahead,” which was viable for a large swath of working middle America at the time, and a cruel joke for the under privileged. Sadly, civil rights abuses, The Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam war were merely background “noise” unless you were living/experiencing it.

This is a difficult post to write, because I’m not sure I’m getting my thoughts and feelings across accurately. The astounding takeaway here (for me) is how willingly we buy into illusion, dream or political belief compelling us in one direction without our ever being aware of or contemplating the alternative as in “Dream vs. drunken nightmare” until it smacks us in the face. And smack us in the face it does in today’s highly charged and chaotic climate with competing biases/beliefs–red vs blue state, conservative vs progressive, Trump vs anti-Trump and violent vs cooperative.

Watch the show’s clips from the media/press coverage on Elvis’ induction and turn in the Army vs. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Viet Nam war. What a stark contrast of media slant or white vs. black political reporting, and thus the whitewashing of history. Muhammad Ali stood up for his beliefs, was exiled from boxing (every bit his identity/art as music was to Elvis), and thus he paid a high price for walking the walk or following his convictions, while Elvis went along for the politically correct ride and lost as well, only his loss was much more personal and damaging in the end–addiction. Today Ali is a hero or at least deemed courageous and empowering while Elvis is still musically entertaining–his is a cautionary tale. Elvis sold out- for money and fame–Ali did not.

And the question surfaces–did Elvis appropriate black musicians’ music/style etc. or did he blend multiple genres and grit into rock and roll? Some wonderful give and takes on this. I believe that the jury is still out here, but did he owe it to his black musical forebears to speak out and jump into civil rights protests? The bigger question in my mind is–what should we expect from entertainers? Is it imperative that they become political proponents/take sides or stick to entertaining? I believe it has to do with artists vs. entertainers. Artists  and artistry has always been and will always be beacons for belief systems or a moral compass. Entertainers do not have to take up the mantle of politics. It gets confusing on art vs. diversion just as there are no cut and dry answers on artistic appropriation.

I highly recommend this show and the series for an independent and insightful look at American history at a critical historical time in the U.S.A juxtaposed to current events and culture. As Elvis’ 1963 Rolls-Royce cruises along, it also breaks down, has to be towed, picks up a hitch-hiker and other colorful characters, musicians and fans jump in and out for a ride. Our Canadian neighbors get to chime in as well. Quite entertaining and artistic at the same time..

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