Baz Luhrmann on Elvis Presley: he was the original punk rocker

Australian director's 'Elvis' biopic comes out this week

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Baz Luhrmann is not talking about Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten when he refers to the "original punk rocker". The Australian director is, in fact, talking about Elvis Presley, the hip-wiggling, knee-trembling king of rock ’n’ roll who turned music upside down in the 1950s with songs such as Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog.

The singer is now the subject of Luhrmann’s glitzy, glamorous new biopic — simply titled Elvis, which comes out on Thursday.

With Presley played by American actor Austin Butler, the film spans his career, from those early days as he started to shake, rattle and roll, to his epic residency in Las Vegas in the 1970s.

“I just want the audience who don’t care about Elvis, the younger audience, to feel what it was like to be there,” says Luhrmann, whose earlier music-filled movies such as Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge! are surpassed here by dazzling showmanship.

Together with his ever-present producer and costume designer wife Catherine Martin, Luhrmann, 59, has been working on the film for five years — partly delayed by Covid-19, with production forced to shut down when Tom Hanks, who plays Presley's shady manager Colonel Tom Parker, caught the virus.

But even before that, he spent months at Graceland, the singer's Memphis mansion that still attracts thousands of tourists every year, to research every life detail. “You see,” he says with a grin. “We do our homework.”

It meant meeting with those who knew Presley, such as Sam Bell, who grew up with him in Tupelo, Mississippi. “He’s a beautiful, older African-American man,” says Luhrmann. “And he told me this story that … Elvis had to walk every day, as a child, through the streets of the black community, past the black school, to get to the white community. But he said, ‘We became fast friends.’”

Every new morsel sent Luhrmann spinning. “I was constantly having to rewrite to try and keep all these balls in the air, and also to truly find the movie.”

In the director’s eyes, it was vital to show that Presley was inspired by the gospel and blues music favoured by those in America's black community — artists that he met such as BB King (played in the film by Kelvin Harrison Jr) and Little Richard (Alton Mason).

“The music that came out of Elvis was music that he absorbed in his friendships with emerging black musicians who weren’t famous,” he says. “Young kids don’t care [about race]. Their personalities are formed by what’s around them and what they absorbed.”

Other key encounters included talent manager Jerry Schilling, “a great friend”, who became part of Elvis’s so-called Memphis Mafia — the group of associates who formed a tight-knit circle around the star. More importantly still, Luhrmann got ushered into the real inner circle — Presley's family.

“I got to have several lovely dinners and meetings with Priscilla,” he says, referring to the musician's wife, played in the film by Olivia DeJonge. He also met with their daughter Lisa Marie and granddaughter, actress Riley Keough.

The most nervous Luhrmann got was when Priscilla Presley watched the movie. “I understand the trepidation, anxiety, maybe even scepticism, of what we would do with the story of her husband,” he admits. “So much has been said about the icon Elvis... like he’s wallpaper, he’s been a God, so much, so many things that are just not true. What will we do? Will we lean into this and that?”

The day she saw it, “I can’t tell you … how our stomachs felt when she went in with Jerry to see that movie.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from the 'Elvis' premiere at Cannes Film Festival

Eventually, Priscilla sent Luhrmann a note.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry I took so long, I just had to gather myself.’” She was captivated by what she saw, the way Butler captured “every move… the man, not the icon” in his performance. “She said, ‘If my husband was here today, he would look him in the eye and say, “Hot damn! You are me!”’

If that isn’t a perfect way to kick off Butler’s Oscar campaign — for he is surely a front runner for next year’s Best Actor prize — it’s hard to know what is.

While the film faithfully follows Presley's rollercoaster career, leading to his decline towards the end of his life when he gained weight and became addicted to prescription pills, it’s more than simply a music biopic.

Set across the time when the Civil Rights movement was growing in America, and racial segregation was tearing the country apart, it’s also a look at a divided nation. “It’s an exploration of America in the ’50s, the ’60s and the ’70s,” says Luhrmann.

Whether it will appeal to younger cinema-going audiences — who, suggests Luhrmann, probably only know Presley from the Disney cartoon Lilo & Stitch — remains to be seen. But the film does a fine job of looking at the man behind the rhinestone-studded jumpsuits, humanising — rather than lionising — him.

As portraits of artists go, it’s humane. “That’s what I discovered,” says Luhrmann. “Above and beyond everything else, say what you like, he was a deeply spiritual being.”

Elvis opens in cinemas on June 23

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Updated: June 22, 2022, 12:01 PM