The result is a dizzying, almost hallucinatory experience — akin to being thrown into a washing machine and mercilessly churned for 2 ½ hours. That isn’t to say that “Elvis” doesn’t provide moments of insight, or even genuine inspiration; it’s just that they occur fitfully, when the viewer is briefly pasted up against the window before being plunged into the barrel of Luhrmann’s lurid sensibility once again.
The most interesting conceit of “Elvis,” which Luhrmann co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, also happens to be its biggest weakness: The story of Presley’s life is narrated by his manager, Col. Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks behind layers of prosthetics and a heavy Dutch accent. (Born in the Netherlands, Andreas van Kuijk took the name “Tom Parker” upon enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1929. The honorary “colonel” came later, in return for his help with the campaign of Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis.) Jovial, conniving and defiantly amoral, Parker makes for a sulfurous and, frankly, tiresome guide through Presley’s life story, which Luhrmann illustrates with a bricolage of musical numbers, set pieces and melodramatic encounters, at one point throwing in an animated sequence taken from the comic books Elvis read as a child. During his formative years, young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) watches transfixed as African American patrons of a Tupelo juke joint writhe deliriously to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, then runs to a nearby Pentecostal revival tent where he’s just as mesmerized by the preaching of the word. Luhrmann intercuts the scenes with jacked-up intensity, framing Presley’s love for Black music and culture as seduction and spiritual conversion. (Crudup is played by Gary Clark Jr. Presley’s friends and influences B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard are played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yola, Shonka Dukureh and Alton Mason, respectively, in picture postcard-tinted scenes of Beale Street club life.)
It’s a blunt, unsubtle but also thrilling scene whose momentum is oddly stopped cold by a cut to Presley — now portrayed by Austin Butler — performing at the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. As the Colonel explains in his ever-present, self-justifying narration, the Black voice in a White body, combined with Presley’s distinctive stage presence — the nervously wiggling leg; the fey, almost feminine beauty; the otherworldly embodiment of the carnal and the sanctified — made Presley “the greatest carnival act I’d ever seen.”
The narrative arc of “Elvis” often feels like it’s been lifted of a piece from Guillermo del Toro’s recent adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Parker, a carnival worker whose showmanship and talent for the short con earned him the nickname “The Snowman,” is portrayed as an Iago-like schemer who sees Presley as the ultimate geek, ripe for exploitation. “Elvis” is aware that the audience knows exactly where this is all going: In rapid succession, using dramatized and real-life news clips, Luhrmann revisits the highs, lows and most dismal depths of Presley’s life, including his sudden stardom, the ensuing furor over his sexuality and “race mixing,” his stint in the Army, his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), his movie career, his decline during the British Invasion, his 1968 comeback special, his residency in Las Vegas, and his descent into drug addiction and exhaustion. Luhrmann reenacts it all with fealty overlaid with funhouse overstatement, an approach that starts to feel as stifling as Parker’s merchandising gimmicks.
Just as Parker took 50 percent of Presley’s earnings, he commandeers at least half the movie, butting into the story with glint-eyed asides and oppressive voice-overs. Luhrmann takes some admirable risks in “Elvis,” including the use of present-day covers of Presley hits by the likes of Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves and Jack White, but nearly every choice he makes has the effect of disorienting and distancing audiences rather than immersing them.
To paraphrase the title of Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan movie, which used similar techniques to more intriguing and meaningful effect: The problem with “Elvis” is that he’s not there. Luhrmann is moving so fast, with such mannered, overbearing self-consciousness, that Butler can barely get a hip swivel in edgewise, let alone a fully realized characterization. He does his own singing during Presley’s formative years, and he does an admirable job of capturing the intoxication and terror of his nascent stardom. But he’s being put through the paces by a filmmaker who turns out to be just as controlling as Parker himself.
It’s tempting to theorize that Luhrmann is temperamentally more attracted to Parker as a protagonist because he sees a fellow martinet, but the Colonel is really the lens through which the filmmaker is examining a broader theme: the freak show of fandom. Continually thwarted from giving his character anything resembling an inner life, Butler’s Presley threatens to get lost in an engulfing spectacle of bloat, sweat and adoring girls’ tears. But something uncanny happens once Parker installs him at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. By now, Butler is lip-syncing to Presley’s actual vocals. But his embodiment of the character has reached another level, where every secret smile and bit of swagger feels like it’s being channeled rather than performed. Karate-chopping and chomp-chomping his way through “Suspicious Minds” and “Polk Salad Annie,” Butler turns what could have been yet another impression of the most imitated musician of all time into something authentic and unexpectedly powerful.
Then it’s back into Luhrmann’s tumbling barrel. Vegas, of course, marks the beginning of the end in “Elvis,” which concludes with Presley himself singing “Unchained Melody” soon before his death. It’s a haunting coda: sad and soaring, tragic and eerily timeless. And it inadvertently suggests that the preceding movie was a sideshow all along. There was always going to be only one Elvis, and he’s long since left the building.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. 159 minutes.