The idea behind Eugene Jarecki’s nonfiction film “The King” — you can’t really call it a documentary — is crazy-good inspired. Drive around the country in a Rolls-Royce once owned by Elvis Presley and have people sit in the back seat. So situated, they talk about him, talk about America, talk about the two of them together. People in the back seat also sing, dance (sort of), and, in at least one instance, weep. Some of the people are famous. Others are not.
Interspersed are non-back-seat talking heads, vintage Elvis footage and audio (some of it quite rare), and magnificent shots of the Rolls traveling through the American landscape like a tony Conestoga. It goes to the usual stations on Elvis’s way: Tupelo, Memphis, Nashville, LA, Vegas. The Rolls doesn’t go to Germany, but the movie does, for Elvis’s Army service. The car also makes its way through West Virginia, fights New York traffic, parks by a Detroit junkyard, heads west along Route 66, sails through the Southwestern desert.
The Rolls practically becomes a character unto itself. “Why didn’t you get one of his Cadillacs?” grumbles David Simon, of “The Wire” fame. He’s one of the interviewees, and a good one. Simon also sensibly counters complaints uttered elsewhere in the movie about Elvis as cultural appropriator: “The entire American experience is cultural appropriation.”
Going with Rolls rather than Caddy is part of the movie’s stalwart strangeness. So’s the fact that the Rolls breaks down twice — or at least twice that we see. Sometimes that strangeness works (glimpses of the Christie’s auction where Warhol’s “Triple Elvis” went for more than $80 million). Sometimes it doesn’t (a Bernie Sanders rally, clips from the original “King Kong,” which do double duty as a stand-in for Elvis arriving in New York and white America’s mania about race and sexuality). Either way, there’s a rare degree of ambition and daring at work here.
Jarecki, who briefly appears a few times, asks his crew chief what he thinks it is that they’re up to with the movie. The question isn’t rhetorical. “I’m not sure you know,” he tells the director. Jarecki does and he doesn’t. That is, he operates from both deep knowledge and wild instinct.
He has the excellent sense to include among his talking heads Elvis’s first guitarist, the impeccable Scotty Moore (who died shortly after the filming); the two finest and most searching writers on Elvis, Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus; and Memphis Mafia members George Klein and Jerry Schilling (whose reminiscences are surprisingly touching). Nancy Rooks, Elvis’s housekeeper, demonstrates how she cooked his beloved fried-peanut-butter-and banana sandwiches. There are also simpatico musicians, like Emmylou Harris and John Hiatt. He’s the one who tears up: Being in the backseat, he explains, has meant “Getting a sense of just how trapped [Elvis] was.”
The instinct emerges with some of the less obvious people we hear from: Simon, Dan Rather, Ashton Kutcher (he gets to drive the Rolls), Ethan Hawke (good, if a mite snarly), James Carville (very good), Mike Myers (very, very good), Chuck D (ditto). A group of kids from Memphis, the Stax Music Academy All-Stars, sing an a cappella version of “Chain of Fools.” If they weren’t sitting in the back seat of a car, you’d swear they were airborne. Alec Baldwin, who seems to be everywhere these days, turns up to make a very embarrassing political prediction.
Ideological overtness is a weakness. Several of Jarecki’s previous documentaries have been political: “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” (2002), “Why We Fight” (2005), about the military-industrial complex, and “The House I Live In,” about the war on drugs. “The King” suffers from irruptions of self-congratulatory indignation. Jarecki shot it during 2016, and the black cloud of Donald Trump looms as large as that of his fellow huckster from hell, Colonel Parker, Elvis’s legendary and (as we now know) surpassingly inept manager.
At its best, “The King” is a fever dream of American glory and American weirdness — between which there can be an even thinner line than the one separating love from hate. Recognizing that the path from “The Sun Sessions” to “Elvis has left the building” is a one-man national parable, Jarecki has the good sense to let us see that for ourselves.
For obvious reasons, “The King” is an apt title: That’s what people called Elvis (with becoming modesty he said Fats Domino better deserved the honor). Yet it’s also a funny title for a movie about an avatar of democratic culture. Jarecki knows that, too. It’s one more example of how this monarch-monikered man of the people embodied contradictions: musical, social, cultural, you name it. It’s a shame that Walt Whitman wasn’t available to chat in the back seat. Even before Elvis got fat — especially before he got fat — he was large, he contained multitudes.
Directed by Eugene Jarecki. Written by Jarecki and Christopher St. John. At Kendall Square. 108 minutes. R (language).Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.