In another era, Baz Luhrmann would probably be inviting passersby to “roll up, roll up” into a revival tent or freak show. The Australian director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge is nothing if not a showman.
Last February, as he unveiled the first trailer for Elvis, his very rhinestone, glitter-bomb version of The King, Luhrmann invited viewers from “the US, from home in Australia, from Asia and our friends in Memphis as well” to ponder “what we do every day on the set” to fashion “a movie for theatres ... a motion picture that’s going to bring all kinds of audience together; strangers to sit in communion”.
It’s a grandiose elevator pitch, one that befits a filmmaker who takes the biggest possible swings. Exhibit A: the director’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby may or may not be to one’s tastes, but no filmmaker will ever produce a more spangly take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. As Tom Hanks put it, when Luhrmann called him up to offer the role of Colonel Tom Parker: “Oh my God, Elvis in your hands, well, that would be a nuclear explosion. That would just be bigger than big could be.”
The presence of Priscilla Presley on the red carpet for the premiere of Elvis at Cannes — not to mention the endorsement of Elvis’s granddaughter Riley Keough (who went on to win the Camera d’Or for her directorial debut War Pony at the same festival) — suggests something like an authorised biopic. Just don’t use that word around Luhrmann.
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“Great storytellers like Shakespeare, you know, they didn’t really do biographies,” says the director behind the decade-defining Romeo + Juliet.
“I mean, Shakespeare never did a biography of King Richard; what he did was, he took a life and used the life as a canvas to explore a larger idea. So I mean, a great biopic is terrific. But something like Amadeus, which was one of my favourite films growing up, for example. It’s not really about Mozart, it’s about jealousy. Look, there are musical icons in my life like Bowie that are so important to me. But as a young guy, I was an Elvis fan. And the reason, all these years later, I wanted to do Elvis is that the life of Elvis Presley could not be a better canvas on which to explore America in the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s. It’s a mythical life that he lived up until a very young 42 years. He lived three great lives put into a short period of time. I wanted to respect Elvis and his life and his fans and the love people have for that character. But what’s extraordinary about it, is that his life is culturally and socially at the centre of three decades during which we can explore America.”
Luhrmann’s jittery, hyperactive depiction of Elvis breezes through the Sun Record years, The King’s movie career, and the singer’s deployment in Germany (where he courted future wife, Priscilla) to focus on the post-1968 revival period and the Mephistophelian hold that manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, under mounds of latex) had over the singer. Parker’s reluctance to allow Elvis to tour beyond the United States and the deals behind the performer’s twilight years Vegas residency account for much of the run time.
The film repeatedly revisits the colonel’s private club jokingly named The Snowmen’s League of America, a pun on the Showmen’s League of America, a fraternal organisation for circus and outdoor entertainers, that, in turn, plays on the word “Snow”, a carnival term for duping an unsuspecting victim.
“The big idea was the relationship between the self and the art,” says Luhrmann, describing a tension that is trumpeted by his own stylish oeuvre. “The show and the business. The snowman and the showman.”
Parker, who was born Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk in the Netherlands, was neither a colonel, a Parker, nor an American.
Speaking to the Washington Post in 1999, Presley’s biographer Peter Guralnick noted Parker’s complicity in Presley’s creative malaise but stopped short of demonising Elvis’s manager: “I see the colonel as a Shakespearean character who provides some comic relief, and is a very funny person intentionally, but who also provides ominous notes struck as one considers the implications, not necessarily intentional, of his discovery of a brilliant system to market Elvis.”
That codependency between Elvis and Parker was similarly stressed by Priscilla Presley when she spoke with Hanks during his preparations for the role.
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“He was a wonderful man, and I wish he was alive today,” she told the actor. “He took really great care of us ... He was a scoundrel in his way.”
“Was he a cheap crook that played fast and loose?” asked Hanks at the Cannes premiere of the film. “Yes, when it comes down to that, but I worked that all out to everyone’s satisfaction. He was a man who brought joy to everything he did ... along with a bit of larceny.”
“I’m not interested in playing a bad guy just for the sake of: Before I kill you, Mr Bond, would you like a tour of my installation?” continued the actor. “That’s okay. I get it, but I think that’s for other stuff. What Baz tantalised me with right off the bat was, here’s a guy who saw the opportunity to manifest a once-in-a-lifetime talent into a cultural force. He sought that and knew that about Elvis the first time he saw Elvis’s effect on an audience ... He realised that guy was forbidden fruit and you could make an awful lot of money off of forbidden fruit.”
For Luhrmann the involvement of the two-time Academy Award winning actor was a counter-casting coup.
“You got Tom Hanks basically playing a villain,” says the filmmaker. “I think people are not expecting to see Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character and I think Tom, he ran towards that. And I think it’s interesting because villain is too easy a word to wrap it up. The story is told from his character’s point of view. It’s a bit like a little show I did called The Great Gatsby. It might be called The Great Gatsby, but it’s actually the Nick Carraway story because it’s told from his perspective.”
Tom Hanks was cast in the role of Colonel Tom Parker in March 2019, leading to a flurry of casting rumours. Who would step into the presumably blue suede shoes variously occupied by past screen Elvises: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, Don Johnson and Jack White?
Early front-runners included Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Harry Styles. A cold call from Denzel Washington to Luhrmann sealed the deal.
“I watched this videotape of this young man in a flood of tears playing Unchained Melody, and I thought, ‘Wow, what is that? What is happening here?’” recalls Luhrmann. “And then I got a call from Denzel Washington.”
Washington recommended Austin Butler, his young co-star in a 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and best known for his depiction of the Manson Family’s Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
“Fundamentally, I was getting to explore the humanity of somebody that has been the wallpaper of society in a way,” says Butler. “He’s such an icon and he’s held up as a superhuman. So to get to explore that and learn why he was the way that he was and to find the human within that icon was really just such a joy. Paired with the fact that I get to work with one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.”
In preparation for the role, Butler watched multiple videos of Elvis gigs and movies to perfect the singer’s voice. In the final cut of Lurhmann’s film, Elvis’s early voice is sung exclusively by Butler, but as Elvis ages, Butler’s voice is blended with later Elvis recordings to give an older vocal sound.
“I was 27 when I was cast and I’m 30 now,” says Butler. “It was a long process. When I began I set out to get my voice to sound identical to his. That was my goal; that if you heard a recording of him, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And I held on to that for a long time. And what that does, is to instil fear, the fear that I’m not going to achieve that. And that got the fire burning inside me to work and work and work and work. I mean, maybe a year before we even started, I was doing six, seven days a week of voice coaching and, and working with different experts just trying to register in the right place, just training for the dialect and his inflection. I could go into the minutiae of the entire process. But ultimately, the life is what is important. What we realised is you can impersonate somebody, but you also have the life within and the passion and the heart. Ultimately, I had to release myself from the constraints of the impersonation and, and try to live the life as truthfully as possible.”
Elvis’s daughter Lisa-Marie Presley has called Butler’s performance “absolutely exquisite”. It’s one of several positive notices from the Presley clan and insiders.
“Early on, I got to have several lovely meetings and dinners with Priscilla,” says Luhrmann. “I met Lisa Marie. I met Riley, the granddaughter. I had to go away and make the film. Covid happened. A long time passed after those initial get-togethers. And I was not able to engage the way I normally would. But I understand the trepidation, anxiety, maybe even scepticism of what we would do with the story of Priscilla’s husband, of Lisa Marie’s father, of Riley’s grandfather. Really late — much later than I would ever like it to happen — I had to screen the third or fourth cut. I’m used to criticism. It’s like Elvis said: critical people have their job. But no critique was ever going to mean more to us than the review of the woman who was married to Elvis Presley.
“I can’t tell you how my stomach felt when she went in to watch that movie. I can’t tell you how long those two hours were. I hear a story that the security guard with Priscilla was crying because of Priscilla’s state. And I thought: Oh God, what have I done? And then she wrote a note: I’m sorry I took so long. I just had to gather myself. If my husband was here today, he would look Austin in the eye and say: ‘hot damn, you are me.’ The greatest reviews I have ever got in my life are the Presley family saying that now there’s something they can look to that, in their view, is the truth of Elvis’s humanity.”
Elvis opens on June 22nd