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Updating Elvis: how Baz Luhrmann brought the King’s music into 2022 – Sydney Morning Herald


Think of all the classic Elvis Presley songs …

Hound Dog, Suspicious Minds, Blue Suede Shoes, Heartbreak Hotel, In the Ghetto, Burning Love, All Shook Up, Kentucky Rain …

Then there’s Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas, Don’t Be Cruel, Return to Sender, Always on My Mind, Love Me Tender and, as they say, there’s more.

Austin Butler sings the early hits in Elvis while the later songs are the King’s own versions.

Austin Butler sings the early hits in Elvis while the later songs are the King’s own versions.Credit:Warner Bros

Fitting the classics into a biopic of the late great king of rock and roll – and making them seem fresh to audiences who might never have been fans – was a key challenge on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

The director of Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby not only had to do justice to one of the great singers of the 20th century, he had to show the seismic impact of Presley’s music when he broke through in the 1950s.

“He was the original punk in some regards,” Luhrmann says. “He was wildly provocative.”

Presley’s raw rocky sound – then described as hillbilly bebop – and hip-swivelling physicality were unsettling and even confronting for country music audiences. Playing some towns in Texas, he needed a police guard to keep him from being beaten up and there were radio station DJs who refused play his early records because he either sounded like a black singer or a hillbilly.

The movie follows Presley (Austin Butler) through the eyes of his wily manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), from being inspired by black gospel music growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, then discovering such black singers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (Gary Clark jnr) when the family moved to Memphis.

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At 21, he had his first hit with Heartbreak Hotel and was soon upsetting television hosts and religious leaders with what one described as movements on stage that would “rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth”. By the time of his death at 42 in 1977, he was one of the world’s most famous entertainers.

Says Luhrmann: “When you’re talking about America in the ’50s, ′60s and ’70s, you can’t get a better poster boy to explore popular culture and society than Elvis Presley.”

“He was the original punk in some regards”: Austin Butler in Elvis.

“He was the original punk in some regards”: Austin Butler in Elvis.Credit:Warner Bros

With breakout songs such as Love Is in the Air from Strictly Ballroom and Young Hearts Run Free from Romeo + Juliet, and hit soundtrack albums for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann has been making movies built around music since he started out.

His approach on Elvis was to use Presley’s music in different ways to tell the story.

Butler sings the early hits faithfully to the original because those recordings were in mono, which meant the quality was too poor to use in the movie, with the real Elvis singing everything from the 1960s on.

Then, to show Presley’s impact at the time, Luhrmann “decodes” songs with different rhythms and contemporary performers who might only be heard in snatches or blended into the Elvis version.

Rapper Doja Cat reinterprets Hound Dog as Vegas, R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan sings Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child and country singer Kacey Musgraves takes on Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Director Baz Luhrman and Austin Butler on the set of a movie shot entirely in Queensland.

Director Baz Luhrman and Austin Butler on the set of a movie shot entirely in Queensland. Credit:Warner Bros

Producer Diplo and rapper Swae Lee rework That’s Alright Mama, Stevie Nicks and Chris Isaak interpret the less well-known Cotton Candy Land, Tame Impala takes on Edge of Reality and Jack White sings Power of My Love.

“You might call them remixes or reinterpretations,” Luhrmann says. “I call them DNA, where you’re hearing it through a slightly more contemporary ear.

“You’ll hear Elvis sing the classics but right next door Doja Cat will be doing an interpretation of Hound Dog while Big Mama Thornton [played by Shonka Dukureh] sings it.”

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis.Credit:Warner Bros

Composer and executive music producer Elliott Wheeler, who also worked with Luhrmann on the Netflix hip-hop series The Get Down, says they were very aware of their responsibility to millions of devoted Elvis fans around the world.

“We talked to all the amazing Elvis scholars and we’ve had access to original recordings,” he says. “We’ve done our best to take what’s there – very faithfully use that – but then also bring in something new so the fans who know his recordings so well can have a new experience of them.”

Music supervisor Anton Monsted, who is up to his fifth Luhrmann movie, says it was important that the Elvis performances feel “live”.

The contemporary artists, on the other hand, were a way of saying “this is what the music felt like at the time”.

Monsted says Luhrmann has no trouble recruiting even the world’s biggest music stars – on Gatsby, it was Jay-Z, Beyonce, Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Ray – because of his infectious excitement for his movies.

“The moment he starts talking about what he’s doing – and he usually has some visual materials that he can share with them – you can see that his passion for the work is contagious,” he says.

While the soundtrack album with a hit single has been overtaken as younger audiences discover music on TikTok, YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services, Monsted says they are curating the 40-odd songs that appear in the movie in different ways.

On the wall of Monsted’s Gold Coast office during post-production were rundowns of a 40-track playlist for streaming, a double vinyl album with 30 tracks, a deluxe CD with 20 tracks, a single vinyl album with 15 tracks and an EP for digital release.

After Doja Cat performed Vegas at Coachella in April, it was released as the first single from the soundtrack. Monsted says Luhrmann has a “musical photographic memory”, which means he knows if a different take of a backing vocal has been used for a scene.

“When you interrogate it, you’ll find out somebody coughed and that’s why we had to change it out,” he says. “Baz will go, ‘I don’t care, I didn’t hear the cough, put it back in, it’s beautiful’.”

Luhrmann also has a talent for imagining what a track will sound like if some element is taken out and something else is put in.

“He’s got an incredibly sharp imagination for where music can get to through making incremental changes to it,” Monsted says. “If making movies doesn’t work out for Baz, he could always become a record producer.”

Elvis opens in cinemas on June 23.

Casting Elvis

When he heard the movie was planned, Austin Butler put his name forward to play Elvis Presley even before Baz Luhrmann had started auditions.

“I put everything else on hold and I just became obsessed and watched every film that I could on Elvis and watched every documentary and read every book,” he says.

“Baz called me a week later and he said ‘are you ready to fly Mr Presley’“: Austin Butler in Elvis.

“Baz called me a week later and he said ‘are you ready to fly Mr Presley’“: Austin Butler in Elvis.Credit:Warner Bros

The American actor best known for playing Tex in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sent Luhrmann a video of himself playing the piano and singing Unchained Melody.

His cause was helped when Denzel Washington called the director to say how good Butler was acting alongside him in the play The Iceman Cometh on Broadway.

While Luhrmann reportedly also held workshop-style auditions with Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller and Aaron Taylor-Johnson among others, Butler won the role after a screen test for Warner Bros.

“Baz called me a week later and he said, ‘Are you ready to fly Mr Presley’,” he says. “It was really special.”

Butler says he started out trying to sound like Presley.

“I set out to get my voice to sound identical to his, so that if you heard a recording of me and you heard a recording of him, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” he says.

But after working six or seven days a week for a year on voice and movement coaching ahead of shooting, Butler realised he needed to take a different approach – humanising Presley rather than imitating him.

“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,” he says.

Butler, who sings the 1950s Elvis songs in the movie, says there were early moments that felt like he’d been thrown in the deep end.

One, just after being cast, was recording Blue Suede Shoes in the same Nashville studio that Presley used for Heartbreak Hotel. Another was recording a gospel song in Nashville.

“We walk into this little chapel and set up all these period microphones with three of the most incredible gospel singers and they’re stamping their feet,” he says. “Tears just poured down my face and I got chills down my spine.

“Experiences like that showed me how much gospel and spirituals influenced Elvis on a musical level, on a spiritual level, on the way that he moved, on the freedom of his body.”

Then on the first day of shooting on the Gold Coast, Butler had to perform as Elvis shooting his ’68 Comeback Special for TV – dressed in black leather – in front of 300 extras. He describes the experience as terrifying but exhilarating.

“You start to feel a connection with the audience, you see a twinkle in someone’s eye, you make someone laugh,” he says. “You feel that rapport. It’s the closest I could feel to the real thing.”

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