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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Elvis"

Director Baz Luhrmann has built his reputation on gaudy, melodramatic shrines to the pleasures and perils of wealth and superstardom, so it was probably inevitable that he’d eventually get around to a movie about Elvis Presley. Luhrmann’s Elvis is an excessive, maximalist musical biography that, in its best moments, is as flashy, opulent and over-the-top as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself. In its worst, it hits biopic beats so worn-out that they seem to be referencing the biopic spoof Walk Hard — a parody of a parody.

The movie is a showcase for two go-for-broke performances: Austin Butler as Presley, and Tom Hanks, buried under latex, as Elvis’ oily manager Col. Tom Parker. Elvis imitations are hardly a novelty anymore; thousands of performers have made it into a full-time job. Butler, a former Disney Channel actor making his starring film debut, is nonetheless very good, and he has the added challenge of capturing all the distinct eras of Elvis — from rockabilly rebellion to bronzed ’60s swagger to bedazzled Vegas camp. (As for Hanks’ performance, it’s more of a curiosity than anything else.)

The film is, unusually enough, told through a dying Tom Parker’s eyes, structured as the final fragmented memories of a self-proclaimed puppet master reflecting on his ultimate protégé. Parker was a fly-by-night P.T. Barnum type who stumbled upon Elvis Aaron Presley as a teenaged upstart, striking up a Faustian bargain that would make Elvis a household name while ensnaring him in contractual red tape. Centering Parker’s POV seems an odd gambit, but perhaps Luhrmann relates to a lifelong carnival barker: After all, they’re both selling their audiences tragedies coated in a thick lacquer of phony glitz and glamor.

Elvis opens with what amounts to an hour-long montage, a dopamine rush of colorful images, unexpected scene transitions, garish CGI and a constant sonic assault on the soundtrack. There’s not a scene in this movie that Luhrmann can’t frame from every conceivable angle, no shot that he can’t slow down and speed up and Cuisinart to death.

There’s so much going on that the screenplay must have had the density of a ’90s phone book. And yet Elvis remains an enigma in his own story, all swiveling hips and curling lips, a blank slate onto which a broken nation could project all its desires, ambitions, prejudices and regrets. This is true not only of the film but of real life: You could argue that Elvis is, 45 years after his death, more American myth than person, an Icarus figure who was perhaps always destined to crash to the earth.

When the movie ends, as biopics often do, with footage of the real Elvis at his final concert, we’re rocked back in our seats — not necessarily because the footage is great (which it is), but because it’s so shockingly vulnerable. He’s covered in flop sweat, winded and exhausted, clearly struggling through a cover of “Unchained Melody.” And yet he’s still giving it his all, pounding on the piano and filling the song with emotion that even the audience probably didn’t quite understand. And then there’s that clarion call of a voice, so guttural and so angelic at the same time, and powerful enough to melt the coldest cynic.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.