If you like non-fiction features, I come bearing good news — there are two excellent new documentaries opening in Berkeley on Friday, July 6. Though the films aren’t remotely similar in subject or style, they’re both among the best docs I’ve watched this year — so make time to see them both!
While you might think there’s nothing new to say about Elvis Presley, Eugene Jarecki’s The King (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) suggests otherwise. Jarecki is known primarily for such politically contentious films as The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Why We Fight, so it probably won’t surprise anyone that he’s taken a similar approach to analyzing Presley, whose rise and decline he likens to the state of the Union in the time of Trump.
Jarecki somehow got access to Elvis’s 1963 Rolls Royce Phantom V and drove it across America, filming it along the way as different celebrities piled into the back seat to express their thoughts on the King’s meteoric ascension and tragically early demise. If A-list actors Ethan Hawke and Alec Baldwin are your cup of tea, they’re here, but so are radical rapper Immortal Technique, roots rocker John Hiatt, and Emi Sunshine, a 12-year-old country singer with a big voice and a deep appreciation for traditional music.
As the Rolls retraces Elvis’s life journey from Tupelo to Memphis to Nashville and points beyond, it begins to break down, offering further metaphorical support for Jarecki’s thesis. There’s also incisive commentary from Public Enemy singer Chuck D (who famously rapped “Elvis was a hero to many, but he didn’t mean shit to me”), writer Van Jones (who muses on Elvis’s failure to give back to the African-American community that gave him so much), and former Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (no, really). It adds up to essential viewing for anyone interested in rock ‘n’ roll, popular culture, and/or American history.
‘Three Identical Strangers’
Three Identical Strangers (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre) takes a look at a curious human interest story that turned into something considerably darker. When teenager Bobby Shafran started college in 1980, he was puzzled when numerous people on campus mistook him for a former student named Eddy Galland; a phone call to Long Island revealed Eddy to be Bobby’s twin brother. The boys had been separated at birth and adopted by different families.
And that wasn’t all: when Newsday ran a story about their reunion, third brother David surfaced. The brothers were actually triplets who’d been adopted by three families living within a 100-mile radius of each other.
At first it seemed like the feel-good story of the year. The brothers took full advantage of their newfound fame, partying hard in Manhattan, appearing on countless television shows and Desperately Seeking Susan, and even opening their own restaurant.
When their parents tried to learn the hows and whys of the triplets’ separation, however, an ugly truth began to emerge: they’d been separated at the behest of a psychiatrist researching the venerable ‘nature versus nurture’ question. Traveling deep into dark and unsettling territory, Three Identical Strangers may not settle the nature/nurture debate, but does suggest a strong preference for one over the other.