Seventy years ago Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll. While the title no longer has any meaning and rock and roll is no longer the most exciting and dangerous music on the airwaves, Elvis is still a cultural icon. His sideburns, swinging hips and quivering lip are still part of American iconography, as important as Coca-Cola or the moon landing in the history of the 20th century. In the 2017 film The King director Eugene Jarecki travels the country in Elvis’ Rolls Royce exploring fame and authenticity in a memorable and deeply interesting documentary. Beyond Elvis's music is a landscape of history and ideas that shines through the musician’s career.
Elvis is one of the first celebrities of the modern era, a larger than life icon of post war America that reflected the era in which he lived. A rhythm and blues singer who embraced television, Elvis became an emblem of his age and appeared everywhere on tv, music and in dozens of films. Elvis was featured on products and places from lunchboxes to Las Vegas. Elvis became an ambassador of a cultural shift that gave rise to teenagers, a generation of rebels without a cause who lived lives distinctly different from those of their parents. Although rock and roll has been supplanted by more high tech music, teenage rebellion and youth culture have become hallmarks of world civilization. In Elvis's shadow lives modern celebrity culture as well. The eccentricities of Kanye West or Justin Bieber may be more expensive, but Elvis would have fit right in with them.
Elvis was an icon for the ages, but he was also a victim of his own fame and success. His dealings with his domineering manager, drugs and success ultimately lead to his demise. Though world-famous, Elvis never toured the world and never performed outside of the United States. Elvis became locked into a number of contracts in film and casinos which kept him trapped in a cage of his own making. Elvis fell in with a bad crowd, started flying around the country in pursuit of
Music is a cultural universal—a way in which complex ideas and emotions are shared that connects deeply with all human beings. Music is a way in which cultures transmit ideas about what has value in a society. These values of joy, sorrow, the self and one's relationship with others are found in music the world over. Through Elvis’s career, we can see a number of these values play themselves out in history. Changing attitudes about race, class and sexuality are expressed throughout music history, and Elvis’s story is one which reflects this history in a unique and fascinating way.
Check out a preview of The King below. If you like what you see, you can use your Basalt Library card to stream the film for free on Kanopy. Visit our website for the link and details you will need to join our Kanopy Film Club discussion of The King via Zoom on Friday, September 11, at 2PM.
Please join us next week for our discussion of the 2016 film Captain Fantastic starring Viggo Mortensen. If you have any questions or comments please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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