Documentary, ‘The King,’ Highlights How Elvis Presley Was Influenced by the Black Church and Black Music

It took about 20 seconds to realize that Eugene Jarecki’s The King is a necessary documentary for this moment in our history. You may wonder why it didn’t come along sooner, until you realize how right it is for this exact time, and it’s a great film about the agony America faces now. Jarecki has done good work before this picture, but when I saw both Steven Soderbergh and Errol Morris listed as executive producers, I thought something unusual was coming – and it did.

The overt subject is the career of Elvis Presley, but The King describes the phenomenon of Elvis Presley as a critical event in American history. Back in 1968, in his book Soul on Ice, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver wrote that Elvis Presley taught the white man how to shake his ass. But that’s just the most obvious thing about Presley. James Carville, the caustic political adviser, says that after Elvis Presley appeared in the world, “America never tasted the same.”

White parents were terrified that Presley’s wildness would do who knows what to their children – those dangerous rhythms and lyrics. They preferred the dependably smooth Pat Boone. The white children knew that their parents’ take on Presley was right – that Presley did offer foreign rhythms from black America, and that he was dangerous. Which is just what they wanted, an antidote to a stiff, uptight, racially and culturally segregated world. But it was all far more complicated than that, and that’s where The King becomes a revelation.

The movie is a furious mélange of film clips, still photos, interviews and music. The past slams against the present. Images from Presley’s life and time join with America now. Presley’s parents were barely working class. His father went to prison for forging a check. As a young man, Presley drove a truck and worked as an electrician. He was not yet musical, but he listened to black radio stations and went to a black church where a few other whites attended, largely to hear the music. Director Eugene Jarecki brings the film to the Stax Music Academy in Memphis, where children now learn soul music – and so they sing and are stunningly good. But so is EmiSunshine, a 13-year old white girl who belts out a white version of blues and gospel.

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