A documentary as sprawling and brilliant and flawed as the country it traverses, Eugene Jarecki’s “The Promised Land” is a fascinatingly overstuffed portrait of America in decline. In the process, it’s also: a biography of the 20th century’s most famous musician,; a story about how a man became king of a democratic nation; a nuanced analysis of cultural appropriation in a multi-racial society; a southern-fried rock n’ roll performance piece; a horrifyingly sober look at the rise of Donald Trump; a closed-casket funeral service for The American Dream; the best recent film about how the hell we got here; and more. So much more.
It’s the latest project from a filmmaker who has always been obsessed with the forces that fuel America (watch 2005’s “Why We Fight” for a perpetually relevant dissection of the military-industrial complex) and who always returns to the same one: Money.
The premise of “The Promised Land” is as simple as the movie is complicated. Jarecki, after having somehow gotten his hands on Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V (which sold for almost $400,000 at auction a few years ago), decides to outfit the luxury car with cameras and take it across the United States, retracing the trajectory of The King’s life story from Tupelo, Miss. to Las Vegas and beyond.
Occasionally, he picks up some musicians along the way, squeezing everyone from M. Ward to Emmylou Harris into the back seat, which has been modified into a mobile recording studio of sorts. The passenger seat, on the other hand, is reserved for a truly random grab bag of celebrity guests that range from Ethan Hawke to Alec Baldwin to… Ashton Kutcher? It seems that Jarecki was happy to let anyone famous ride shotgun so long as they were willing to spitball about Elvis or the America that he did so much to create and/or clarify.
And, as if that weren’t enough, he throws in some perfectly chosen talking heads. Chuck D shows up to unpack one of rap’s most legendary disses (“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me”), and a surprisingly insightful Mike Myers drops by to offer the Canadian perspective. Who knew that the Gray Poupon gag from “Wayne’s World” could possibly have carried so much cultural baggage?
Somehow, to Jarecki’s credit, it all comes back to Elvis. The more the movie strains to get there, the more it seems to all make sense. Elvis was so many different things to America that the film’s exhaustingly kaleidoscopic attack proves more revealing than a straightforward approach ever could. Whether arguing the degree to which Elvis stole (and profited from) black culture, or contrasting his cushy military service against Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight, or offering a sympathetic take on how easily the King was ruled, Jarecki paves the last 70 years of American history so that every road leads back to a poor kid with black hair and high cheekbones. The result is the most insightful and comprehensive profile of the icon ever been captured on camera.
Jarecki — who doesn’t only direct the film, but quite literally also drives it — clearly means for the car to serve as a metaphor, but he even clearly has no idea what that metaphor should be. That might be a criticism in any other doc, but not here: Jarecki twists his lack of direction into a feature, not a bug. Between footage of the Rolls breaking down, and an amusing scene in which “The Wire” creator David Simon mocks Jarecki for basing his movie on a foreign-made car (which in turn prompts its own allusions to imperialism and royalty), “The Promised Land” steers into the fact that the United States can mean whatever people want it to mean. You may not be able to be Elvis, but you can sure as shit impersonate him for a living.
America, like its current President (at least as of this article’s publication), is so dangerous precisely because it’s a blank canvas on which anyone can project their dreams. Whatever it is that you see for yourself, there’s someone you can pay for the pleasure of believing that it’s possible. In his view, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate con, a delusion that prevents us from seeing our circumstances for what they are.
Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.
The film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival in Special Screenings.