Almost eight years in the making, Luhrmann first entered into negotiations to direct the film in 2014, receiving the blessing of Elvis’ widow Priscilla Presley and their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, along the way.
With fierce competition for the title role, Luhrmann would find his Elvis in former teen star Austin Butler, 30, three and a half years ago.
“They are huge shoes to fill,” Butler says in something of an understatement. “When I began the process of this, I set out to get my voice to sound identical to his, that was my goal, so if you heard a recording of me and you heard a recording of him, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And I held onto that for a long time.
“But what that does is that it also instills fear, this fear that I am not going to achieve that or whatever. So that got the fire burning inside me to work and work and work. For maybe a year even before we started shooting, I was doing seven days a week of voice coaching and working with different experts and just trying to get the register to be in the right place and the dialect and the way he inflects and everything. I can go into the minutiae of the entire process but ultimately the life is what is important. What we realised, is that you can impersonate somebody, but to find the humanity and the life within and the passion and the heart, ultimately I had to release myself from the constraints of that and try to live the life as truthfully as possible,” says Butler, whose gyrating pelvic thrusts and sexual pout will surely ignite a whole new generation of Elvis fans.
Dubbed the “king of rock’n’roll”, Elvis was just 42 years old when his legend abruptly ended – suffering the ultimate indignity of dying on the toilet of his Graceland mansion. Diagnosed with glaucoma, hypertension, liver tension and an enlarged colon, the coroner ruled his death as “cardiac arrest”, although historians would later claim his untimely demise to be accelerated by years of drug abuse.
Typical of Luhrmann’s filmmaking style, audiences can expect his film to offer a unique take on the life of the iconic musician – and his particular American tragedy – as opposed to a formulaic biopic.
“The great storytellers like Shakespeare didn’t really do biographies. I mean, Shakespeare never did the biography of King Richard. What he did was look at a life and use that life as a canvas to explore a larger idea. A great biopic is terrific, but something like Amadeus for example, it’s not really about Mozart, it’s about jealousy,” explains the Australian writer/director/producer celebrated for his films Strictly Ballroom, The Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!
With Tom Hanks in the pivotal role of Elvis’ legendary manager, Colonel Tom Parker, the trailer hints that he may be the villain of the piece when he says, “There are some who say I am the villain of this story.”
“Now, of course he doesn’t go on to tell the story that says they are right,” offers Luhrmann. “From that character’s point of view, he’s actually defending his telling of that story. It’s a device because, in truth, when it comes to an historical character, there’s only ever somebody’s telling of that story. Even in life, if you lived with an Elvis or you lived with an Amadeus, it’s your memory, your version of their life. And people always tell the story of someone else from a perspective that is their telling. It’s a bit like when I did The Great Gatsby, it might be called The Great Gatsby, but it’s actually Nick Carraway’s story.”
Thoroughly immersing himself in the world of The King, Luhrmann spent time in Memphis where he became acutely aware of his task to also emphasise Elvis’ often understated relationship to black culture in America.
“I am the ultimate outsider. I come from a very small country town, not dissimilar to Tupelo [northeast Mississippi’s largest city, and Elvis’ birthplace]. Where I come from, Tupelo would have been called a city, because my town was so small, like five houses.
“I am the ultimate outsider, and when I go and do Moulin Rouge and it’s in Paris, I come as an outsider and I live it. If I do The Get Down, I come as an outsider and I live it. If I do The Great Gatsby, I come as an outsider and I live like Fitzgerald, probably got into too much of the things Fitzgerald did…” he laughs.
“But I do live it, it’s a real truth, that’s why I make films so infrequently. The greatest joy to me is to be an outsider and to live it. And the thing that became so apparent to me by living in Memphis and living the story, is that actually the number one thing about Elvis Presley’s journey, is that black music and culture isn’t a side note or a footnote – it’s absolutely the canvas on which the story is written. Meaning, if you take that out of the Elvis Presley story, there’s no story. He grew up in that community, from the get-go, I mean the idea of him on Beale Street, sometimes being the only white face in Club Handy… The owner of Club Handy even says that.
“You have the civil rights movement emerging; you have him becoming a problem in terms of jumping the race line; he’s a problem, it’s dangerous. And this is where we have to start talking about the Colonel, but something has to be done about this Elvis kid and something is done about this Elvis kid, spoiler alert!” he teases.
“And eventually the journey of Elvis is to get back to who he really is and that is in the trailer and who he really is, is gospel music. And gospel music is spiritual. And this is something I learned,” Luhrmann says talking about how Butler went on the same journey with him.
“Austin didn’t just learn it, he lived it. And there’s something I learned about Elvis that I never knew before, that the number one fact is, that man was spiritual, he was a spiritual being. When that trailer opens with Colonel Tom Parker saying destiny is a funny thing, it was my destiny, that’s the Colonel talking about his destiny, because he is the storyteller, his destiny was to find the greatest – to be blunt – carnival act on the planet, that’s how he languaged it.”
Luhrmann doesn’t blanch at exploring Elvis’ role in unleashing America’s sexual revolution.
“There’s much more to say about that because obviously this film is a vast canvas, but it’s really interesting how that liberation of the younger generation was so terrifying – but it was also terrifying because of its complex relationship to race in America, we have to be really honest about that,” he says. “And that’s what causes the drama. I looked at this as an outside storyteller, so that’s where the drama goes through the roof.”
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is in cinemas June 23, 2022