What happens when a filmmaker rents the Rolls Royce of the King of Rock n’ Roll Elvis Presley and drives it across America, using it and the man himself as a metaphor for the rise and fall of America? In the documentary Promised Land, a sprawling exploration of the American Dream; filmmaker Eugen Jarecki cleverly parallels the rise to fame and tragic downfall of one of history’s most iconic figures to the United States, particularly focusing on the 2016, in sublime fashion.
Arguably people can take a lot of issues with Jarecki’s progressive stance and own views that the USA is currently experiencing its worst decline in history, but linking this to the cult of personality that was Elvis is an absolute stroke of genius. Jarecki explores the career of the King, from his humble beginnings in the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, to his tragic final run of shows in the great Las Vegas.
With the help of celebrity cameos such as Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Public Enemy’s Chucky D and Alec Baldwin, who each give their own takes on Elvis and on the world we live in, this documentary is well informed and varied in the views it expresses. As well as the cameos Jarecki recruits musicians such as the rapper Immortal Technique or The Handsome Family (True Detective S1 theme song) to sit in the back of the car playing music, which in itself is intelligently filmed and moving. Of course Jarecki’s own views are the overbearing element, but it doesn’t take away from the quality of this piece of important documentary work.
In a sense there is an overly celebratory theme about Elvis and his brilliant, short-lived career, but taking views from both sides in a documentary like this is vital. Elvis had his critics, especially in the African-American community, who believed he stole his music from them and never gave anything back, which in all honesty is somewhat true. Elvis wasn’t someone who tended to embroil himself in big political issues and rarely, if ever, spoke out his own views publicly, something Alec Baldwin said had “nearly ruined my own career”.
Ethan Hawke, despite being a huge fan of Elvis, is critical of the way throughout his career when faced with choices between integrity and money, Elvis chose money, and this is a brilliant deduction of not just Elvis but the American people as a whole, as Ronald Reagan said “if you have a choice between having the money for a pool and screening children for AIDs, you would choose the pool”, and sadly, this statements rings true for a high percentage of American people and their motivation of money.
Jarecki and others portray the idea that the American Dream was just a myth, and consistently links this to the so-called ‘Promised Land’ of America, where if you work hard you’ll be rewarded, something he deeply analyses to show it as simply not true.
Hard-hitting footage of the poverty suffered in Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo, a town that has never really moved on from the King’s fame, expresses this idea of a broken American Dream perfectly. The school that Elvis attended is supposedly only still open because he went there, with many believing it would have simply been shut down had he not attended it.
The film’s powerful, reflective ending is one of the most moving pieces of documentary filmmaking ever made. His last ever performance; his heartbreaking, soul-piercing rendition of ‘Unchained Melody‘ sung by a weary, unhealthy and almost unrecognisable Elvis is accompanied by footage of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina damage and a host of other issues America has faced since the King’s untimely death in 1977. Truly Jarecki makes you realise just how important Elvis was as not only a cultural icon, but the human embodiment of the American Dream, and how that crumbled to an undignified death on the toilet at the age of 42.
Promised Land is a truly thought provoking, moving and wholly intelligent piece of documentary filmmaking that leaves the viewer feeling overwhelmed with emotion and pessimism. Jarecki has destabilised the myth of the American Dream, whilst providing a mixture of opinions about the state of America currently and how they can link to Elvis’s life and death. A standout moment is when Alec Baldwin says, “I don’t know if this movie is coming out after the election or not, but Trump will not win”, and all you can think is ‘whoops’.
A must watch film that provides a deeper insight into the crumbling world we find ourselves living in.
Words by Elliott Jones