The King and Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Two films, two models
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes the front seat in Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce to explore America in a new film, The King. The coast to coast drive explores the American Dream, the roots of rock and roll, the 2016 U.S. election and the nature of success using Elvis as the metaphoric story.
Ethan Hawke shares, near the end, that Elvis at each juncture in his career chose money, more money rather than what might have made him happy or fulfilled. Jarecki uses this theme to make social commentary on the U.S., suggesting that the dream is dead, or really never existed, and questioning the obsession with more money rather pursuing happiness and being grateful for lesser financial rewards.
The film attempts to take the Elvis story, as a cautionary tale of becoming an objectified symbol, even a King, while in the process losing himself. By taking this tale and stacking it up with the presidential campaign it wants us to see the Trump campaign in particular being about the same kinds of choices, choices that make a sacrifice for the promise of the dream and more money.
This may be stretching what he has narrative material for and depends on a variety of people making comments that seem only loosely connected to the Elvis narrative to make this point. Most of the history is not new, nor are the critiques ably put forth by rapper Chuck D and commentator/advocate Van Jones. If you haven’t considered the roots of Elvis’ music juxtaposed with his silence during the civil rights movement, this is a film you should see.
The back of the car became a portable performance/recording hall as a variety of musicians played instruments and sang around the mic mounted on the seat. Many of the musicians I recognized from the canon of greats, but I found Emi Sunshine and her band to be the most entertaining. Emi, a thirteen-year-old performer, clearly not even that old when this was filmed, played her uke backed by a family band and sang her heart out. These musical interludes make the film worth seeing.
Having spent the last several weeks, exploring sites where the Holocaust began and where the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the torturous hand of the KGB dealt a litany of pain and suffering, I do have concerns about the U.S. It does seem many Christians, who I am a part of, are willing to compromise principles to achieve political power. They, like Elvis, and the church in Germany, may find their soul and what is most important, after the damage has already been done. I read two Bonhoeffer biographies on these trips, and his concern for the death of Christianity as it chose to align with the national interests is much more instructive than The King. (If you have a gap of historical knowledge, I recommend Bloodland: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder.)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor, offers the story of Fred Rogers and the creation of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” which ran of course for decades on public television. Fred wrestled with the same questions that Jarecki points at in his film; what do we want our neighborhoods and communities to look like? Who do we want to welcome in, what is the nature of success and what would truly bring us happiness and fulfillment?
Morgan Neville’s documentary, even if you didn’t grow up watching Mister Rogers, is a profound exploration of following your faith and not compromising your principles as you create a cultural icon. No one will suggest that Mister Rogers had the power of Elvis, but we might all consider who we want our children to emulate, and who we would choose to be friends with, and which one do we think died satisfied with the life he had led.
At the end of the day, who do I want to be remembered by?
Mister Rogers wasn’t about fancy sets or costumes, but about affirming the dignity of each person. While Elvis shirked the power he had to speak to the racial issues of his day, Mister Rogers made deliberate choices to include characters that represented a broader spectrum than might have been the norm for children’s programing of the time. He was concerned with violence and the fact that children were being taught to laugh at others’ pain and misfortune. He thought this might lead to a culture that didn’t care about those who had misfortune or lacked the power to change their circumstances.
At the end of the day who I want to be remembered by are the people who I encouraged, loved, mentored and maybe even inspired. For that Mister Rogers is a much better model.