Arts & Culture

Elvis Rides Again

Notables such as Emmylou Harris and Ethan Hawke hop in the back of Elvis Presley’s Rolls-Royce to muse on the rocker and America in a new documentary

Photo: Photo by David Kuhn. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce in the Sonoran Desert.

Elvis may have been known for his Cadillac obsession, but another make of car takes center stage in the acclaimed documentarian Eugene Jarecki’s new film, The King: the legendary rock-and-roller’s 1963 Rolls-Royce.

Jarecki, who found the Rolls up for auction in California, drove the car around the country, from Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and his home in Memphis, to New York and Las Vegas, cajoling the famous (including Southerners Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke,  James Carville, and Van Jones); up-and-coming performers (students at Memphis’s Stax Music Academy, the Tennessee band EmiSunshine and the Rain); and everyday Americans to climb into the car’s plush backseat and muse on both Elvis, and the state of America.

“I came to understand Elvis more deeply, and I came to understand America more deeply,” says Jarecki, who interweaves the interviews with biographical dives into Elvis’s life, along with historic photography and footage. A two-time winner of both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Peabody Award for the documentaries Why We Fight and The House I Live In, Jarecki was inspired to make the film after he traveled the country talking to Americans for a previous project. In every town, he says, he seemed to hear the same refrain: “What happened to the American dream?” recalls Jarecki. “What happened to the country and the destiny and the pride I was promised when I was in middle school, when I was in high school, when I said the pledge. Where did all of that go?”

More on Elvis: View Backstage Photos of the ‘Young King’

Jarecki continues, “One day we were young and beautiful and the sky was the limit. The cars were candy-colored and chrome, and it was a world of possibilities. Now we wake up and everything’s about bills and contracts and fine print and the difficulties of making ends meet and people having to work multiple jobs and travel miles and miles just to have a job. Talking about ourselves as the Elvis who had come to lose himself seemed to resonate with people.”

So Jarecki and the crew tracked down the car, and began their journey to create The King, the executive producers of which include Rosanne Cash. “What more beautiful way to go about this, than to bring people on a great American road trip in Elvis’s car, and to cross the country tracing Elvis’s footsteps across that same land?” says Jarecki. “There was so much poetry in that.”

Photo: Photo by David Kuhn. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Mike Coykendall (left) and M. Ward in Hollywood, California, as featured in The King.

In the press notes, Cash echoes that sentiment: “The imagery and interviews so perfectly dovetail that it’s like an epic poem,” Cash says, “a narrative ballad, a piece of music that makes us deeply contemplate the state of America. I am thrilled so show it to the world for the conversations it will inspire.”

After filming, Jarecki was able to sell the Rolls-Royce to a new owner: Florida’s Seminole Tribe, who will make it the centerpiece of their new Atlantic City property, the former Trump Taj Mahal, which they’re revamping as a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. As part of the sale, Jarecki and crew required Hard Rock to donate $25,000 to the next generation of musicians at Stax Music Academy, which will be presented to the group at the film’s debut in Memphis, on July 13. You can find the film’s other opening dates, at theaters across the country, here.