I’ve been going to Sundance for over a decade and it never fails to lift my cinematic spirits. So a heartfelt appreciation is in order on this Valentine’s Day. The offerings continue to expand, even adding a new theatrical venue, “The Ray,” this year, encompassing “New Frontier” installations, musical performances, VR (virtual reality) experiences, and episodes of the finest in new television programing.
There are great panels in addition to the film selections drawn from over 13,000 submissions. My concentration is on the feature presentations (122 in all) amid the incredible richness and diversity over the festival’s 10 days January 18 - 28.
The opening day press conference set a tone in tune with the challenges of the times. In the wake of the allegations of sexual misconduct that have rocked the entertainment industry and society more broadly, the “me too” and “time’s up” movements, Sundance founder and president Robert Redford observed that “the role of men right now is to listen, to think about it and discuss it. It’s a time of change that can lead to a new conversation, at least I’m hopeful.” Of 191 feature and short films, fully 42 per cent were directed by women. Indeed Sundance has always striven to give a voice to these and other underrepresented and marginalized storytellers. It has never shied away from critical issues of power, race, gender, and equal rights.
As elsewhere across the U.S. and Canada, there was a large women’s march in Park City, Utah, where the festival is centred, marking the anniversary of the Trump inauguration. Speakers included several subjects of notable documentaries: Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Seeing Allred about leading women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, and RBG on pioneering U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“To counter the right-wing echo chamber, disillusioned voters must be reached by a media they can trust to tell the truth,” Fonda said. Allred exhorted the crowd: “resist, insist, persist, elect. This is the year that women’s voices have been heard, the year when women broke our silence about the injustices we have suffered, and the year where we said to rich, powerful, famous men you can break our hearts but you cannot break our spirits.”
The phenomenon of “fake news” and Trumpian attacks on the press was another issue that loomed large from opening day. Redford recalled his role in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men about Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. “You want journalism to tell the truth,” Redford said. “Journalism always seems to be under threat . . . because journalism is our means of getting to the truth and getting to the truth is harder and harder in this climate.” That is the danger when political polarization turns the media landscape into a “war zone” rather than a shared dedication to telling the truth. It also raises the bar for the role of art in society, which is “to describe it and to critique it.”
There were many films, mostly on the documentary side, that resonated with the current troubled climate in America and abroad. For example, Generation Wealth explored the effects of rampant consumer capitalism. Dark Money probed the flood of corporate cash through hidden sources to, in effect, buy elections. Our New President delved into the outrageously biased Russian television coverage of American politics during and since the 2016 election campaign. Films in “The New Climate” program included Anote’s Ark about the existential threat to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati resulting from rising sea levels caused by climate change, and Inventing Tomorrow showcasing young innovators who are putting their minds to address environmental challenges. Among the U.S. dramas, Burden, winner of the audience award, recounted a powerful true story of overcoming a legacy of violent racial prejudice.
Much more in subsequent columns. I’ll also review a new book I bought in Park City, Frances Moore Lappé’s and Adam Eichen’s Daring Democracy, which provided a bracing read on my flights back from Utah.
For now I want to point to the singular documentary film — there was only one screening as a special event — that made the strongest impression. It is director Eugene Jarecki’s The King, which first screened as “Promised Land” at the Cannes film festival, described by IndieWire’s David Erhlich as a “highly insightful look at how the hell America got to where it is today.” The “king” is the rock ‘n roll icon and ultimately tragic figure of Elvis Presley, surely the most impersonated musician ever, whose legend lives on.
Jarecki and his producers (including Sundance alumnus Steven Soderbergh and actor-director Ethan Hawke, who had three films at Sundance) obtained Elvis’s 1963 silver Rolls-Royce and, a couple of breakdowns aside, took it on a revealing cross-country road trip from Mississippi to Memphis to New York City, along Route 66, to Las Vegas and beyond. Jarecki brilliantly uses Elvis’s storied rise and decline as a lens through which to observe those decades of the American experiment as country and empire, reflecting on the promises of the American dream and what has happened to them.
Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, as an only child, and at age 13 moved to Memphis, Tennessee. (He once said: “I get lonely in the middle of a crowd.”) His father did prison time and the family was poor working class. You might say he grew up “white trash” like that examined in acclaimed recent books such as Hillbilly Elegy. Elvis went to an evangelical black church and was exposed to gospel music and “the blues” (succinctly defined as a “cry of pain” and “a good man feeling bad”).
This was certainly no dream world. As commentator Van Jones puts it, “Elvis was born into an American nightmare” of racial segregation that looked down on “n___ music” as unsuitable for white audiences. As Hawke narrates the history, Elvis proved to be the right white boy at the right time for Sam Phillips of Sun Records who was someone who could cross over Africa-American musical influences to the white mainstream. Elvis was the ticket to an infectious fusion of rock, country, rhythm and blues that soared up the charts, turning songs by black musicians (“That’s all Right,” “Hound Dog”) into major hits.
It was brazen cultural appropriation that’s still resented by African-American artists. Of course Elvis was also exploited by promoters for all he was worth, notably controlling dealmaker Colonel Tom Parker taking 50 per cent of his earnings. Memphis (where nearly 40 per cent live below the poverty line) might be called the city of three kings. It was also the home base of blues legend B.B. King and where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Making the big time meant moving beyond Memphis, first to the Big Apple’s epicentre of capitalism, which fellow country boy Dan Rather observes must have been like “landing on a distant planet.”
The Elvis brand was the golden goose. He became a television idol. Then drafted into the army, serving a safe stint overseas in Germany, a poster boy of the “new Rome,” a global celebrity who left as James Dean and came back as John Wayne, soon to be fawned over as a movie star in a Hollywood that, in the words of Ethan Hawke, was “making all of us worshippers of things not worth worshipping.” Elvis would end up trapped by fame, a Las Vegas fixture, a bloated parody of his former glory, a pill-popping addict, dead at 42. There’s a requiem for the American dream in that story that retains a contemporary relevance.
Into this masterfully constructed memoir as travelogue, Jarecki inserts a range of incisive commentaries on the American condition by figures ranging from political strategist James Carville to actor Alec Baldwin (known for his priceless impersonations of Trump on Saturday Night Live). Among the most perceptive is by Canadian comic genius Mike Myers who contrasts Canada’s “peace, order and good government” with American visions of power and manifest destiny, ruling the world “through the moving image and projection of the image.” Elvis had moments of grace — during a 1968 comeback television special; in an encounter with Sioux Indians on their sacred land. But these were fleeting, the toll of money, success and addictions leaving a fateful spiritual void. His final destination, Las Vegas, is described by Myers as a “radioactive mutation of capitalism.”
Jarecki sees a metaphor for what troubles the soul of America at a time when a narcissistic billionaire in the White House can claim to speak for its people. Elvis did not come to a graceful end, yet he’s used to make fortunes through the Memphis mansion “Graceland” and all manner of memorabilia. There’s a scene in a luxury auction house where a “triple Elvis” portrait sells for $73 million. Nothing is too gross, it seems.
In the discussion following the Sundance screening, Soderbergh quoted the saying: “If you want to know who someone really is, give them everything they want.” Elvis supposedly had it all, yet the dream of money, happiness and success sold to millions proved an empty, lonely delusion in the end. The America that made Elvis a legend can still inspire as an open society, and as Baldwin says in the movie, “is great when it does great things.” But there’s a warning about when the delusion takes over and blinds people to the truth.
The subtext of The King is that the promise of America is betrayed when it falls for false promises. Like those of a deceitful demagogue who proclaims “America First.” To which I’ll give Jarecki the last word in response: “I believe that everyone is morally responsible to be a citizen of the world.” That’s the Sundance spirit speaking.