From the London Film Festival: ‘Promised Land’

A documentary film crew buy Elvis’s old Rolls Royce and drive it around the United States of America. Along the way they pickup celebrity passengers and members of the public to discuss the life of Elvis and how it relates to the decline or stagnation of the nation during and after his life.

The two narratives are fascinating in their own right. It’s heart-breaking to see the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, a country boy who found unimaginable success and then entered into a Faustian deal with Colonel Tom Parker who trapped him in Vegas and all its vices. The story is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and even the current financial and political landscape, long after Presley’s death.

What’s so impressive about the documentary is how seamlessly these two narratives (of Presley and the United States) complement each other. Eugene Jarecki, the director, appears on screen during the film to discuss the validity of this documentary with a member of his crew who questions the purpose. Fortunately the result is remarkably coherent. He lived the American Dream, and his life changed as the dream did, moving from equality and opportunity to capitalism and the emergence of the same ruling classes the country was intended to escape. The film touches on celebrity culture, religion, economics, and philosophy.

The guests are all superb. Ethan Hawke appears as a great authority on the King, while broader context is provided by political commentators like James Carville and Dan Rathers, actors like Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers and Ashton Kutcher and musicians like Immortal technique, The Handsome Family and John Hiatt. Some of the most insightful commentary came from Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D. One of the more interesting debates within the documentary is regarding Elvis appropriating or stealing black music without giving back to the community. Chuck D offers that culture is there to be shared and that everyone has a right to produce this music. But Elvis’ silence during the civil rights movement mustn’t be ignored.

With such an unusual premise, it’s very surprising that this documentary is so profoundly moving and so deeply interesting.

5 / 5


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