Should Elvis’ legacy continue?
The result is a dizzying, almost hallucinatory experience – akin to being thrown into a washing machine and churning mercilessly for 2½ hours. That’s not to say “Elvis” doesn’t provide moments of insight, or even genuine inspiration; it’s just that they occur intermittently, as the viewer is briefly pressed against the window before being plunged into the barrel of Luhrmann’s lugubrious sensibility once more.
The most interesting concept of “Elvis,” which Luhrmann co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, is also its biggest weakness: Presley’s life story is narrated by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. behind layers of prosthetics and a thick Dutch accent. (Born in Holland, Andreas van Kuijk adopted the name “Tom Parker” when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1929. The honorary “Colonel” came later, in exchange for his help in the campaign for Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis. ) Jovial, conniving, and defiantly amoral, Parker is a sulfurous and, frankly, tiresome guide through Presley’s life story, which Luhrmann illustrates with a bricolage of musical numbers, sets, and melodramatic encounters, at one point playing in an animated sequence drawn from from the comic books Elvis read as a child. During his formative years, young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) watches transfixed as the African-American patrons of an ordinary Tupelo juke squirm deliriously for Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, then rush to a nearby Pentecostal revival tent, where he is so mesmerized by the preaching of the word. Luhrmann intersperses the scenes with heightened intensity, framing Presley’s love of black music and culture as seduction and spiritual conversion. (Crudup is played by the friends and influences of Gary Clark Jr. Presley, BB King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard are played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yola, Shonka Dukureh and Alton Mason, respectively, in colorful scenes from postcard of Beale Street club life.)
It’s a hard-hitting scene, not at all subtle but also gripping, whose momentum is strangely interrupted by a cut of Presley – now played 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 dangling leg; the faerie, almost feminine beauty; the supernatural incarnation of the carnal and the sanctified – made Presley “the greatest carnival act I ever saw.”
The narrative arc of “Elvis” often feels like it was taken from a play in Guillermo del Toro’s recent adaptation of “Nightmare Alley.” Parker, a carnival worker whose charisma and talent for the short cut earned him the nickname “The Snowman”, is portrayed as a scheming Iago who sees Presley as the ultimate nerd, ready for exploration. “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 darker depths of Presley’s life, including his sudden stardom, which followed. furor over his sexuality and “mixing of races,” his stint in the Army, his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), his film career, his decline during the British Invasion, his 1968 comeback special, his Las Vegas residency and its offspring in drug addiction and exhaustion. Luhrmann re-enacts it all with fidelity overlaid with over-the-top fun, an approach that begins to feel as suffocating as Parker’s merchandising gimmicks.
Just as Parker took 50 percent of Presley’s earnings, he runs at least half of the film, butting into the story with bright-eyed asides and oppressive narration. Luhrmann takes some admirable risks on “Elvis,” including his use of current covers of Presley hits from the likes of Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves and Jack White, but nearly every choice he makes has the effect of disorienting and distancing the audience instead of dipping them.
To paraphrase the title of the Bob Dylan film by Todd Haynes, who 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 polite and arrogant self-awareness, Butler can barely turn his hips sideways, let alone a fully realized characterization. He sings on his own during Presley’s formative years and does an admirable job of capturing the intoxication and terror of his nascent stardom. But he’s being challenged by a filmmaker who turns out to be as controlling as Parker himself.
It’s tempting to theorize that Luhrmann is temperamentally more drawn 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 topic: the fandom freak show. Continually barred from giving his character anything resembling an inner life, Butler’s Presley threatens to get lost in an engrossing spectacle of bloated, sweaty, and adoring girls. But something strange happens when Parker installs him at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. So far, Butler is voicing Presley’s actual vocals. But his impersonation of the character has reached another level, where every secret smile and swagger seems to be being channeled rather than carried out. Chopping karate and chomping his way through “Suspicious Minds” and “Polk Salad Annie,” Butler transforms what could have been yet another impression of the most imitated musician of all time into something authentic and unexpectedly powerful.
Then back to the Luhrmann barrel. Vegas, of course, marks the beginning of the end in “Elvis,” which ends with Presley himself singing “Unchained Melody” just before his death. It’s a haunting coda: sad and soaring, tragic and hauntingly timeless. And it inadvertently suggests that the previous film was a sideshow all along. There would always be only one Elvis, and he left the building a long time ago.
PG-13. In theaters in the area. Contains substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking. 159 minutes.