Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’: Demystifying the man behind the legend
Film aficionados greeted the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with explosive applause and a 12-minute standing ovation — with good reason.
The acclaimed film is as much a sensational showcase of prodigious talent and musicality as it is a harrowing tale of abuse all wrapped into the life story of the bestselling solo recording artist of all time: Elvis Presley.
After watching the gripping two-hour and 39-minute movie, which opens in Philippine cinemas this Wednesday, viewers won’t be able to listen to “Unchained Melody,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Hound Dog” and other enduring Presley hits the same way again.
At the heart of this music-enhanced drama is the relationship that unravels between Elvis (Austin Butler in a career-boosting portrayal) and his “enigmatic” manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, almost unrecognizable in an Oscar-worthy vanishing act).
It’s a complicated relationship as seen through the lens of Col. Parker, set against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape at the time — from the postwar 1950s to the chaotic “Me Decade” of the ’70s.
Even as it captures the essence of Elvis’ electrifying presence and persona, it also manages to demystify the flawed and sensitive man behind the rubber-legged, hip-swiveling legend.
We were as thrilled as Baz and his cast — composed of Austin (Elvis), Olivia DeJonge (Priscilla Presley), Alton Mason (Little Richard), Yola (Sister Rosetta Tharpe), and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (BB King) — when we attended the virtual press con held last Tuesday just steps away from the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.
Baz, who’s the genius behind indelible screen classics like “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!,” said that he wanted to explore bigger ideas by way of Elvis’ great life and music.
“The film is more than just the story of Elvis,” the 59-year-old director said. “He’s had such a great life to use in our exploration of America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—and even where we are now.
“But it’s as much about the dynamic of that relationship between Elvis and Col. Tom. It’s about show and business… about management and control and exploitation… about truth and creativity in the soul. I think a lot of that is going on in the world today.”
Asked to explain the film’s unique perspective by opting to tell Elvis’ story through the prism of Col. Tom, Baz said, “In this extraordinary story, you have a two-hander between Elvis and a character that most people might think of as the villain. But here, Col. Tom argues that he’s not the bad guy — which gives the film a tremendous dramatic tension. It allows you to go to places you wouldn’t go otherwise and reveal things that you wouldn’t be able to reveal.
“It helps us explore the larger idea that explains Elvis’ soul, having come from such humble beginnings, carrying with him the shame of his father Vernon (Richard Roxburgh), the loss of his mother Gladys (Helen Thomson)—which created this big hole [in his] heart.
“Why did this tragedy happen? Everyone says, ‘Oh, you think it was me? His evil manager was just exploiting for money.” But what Col. Tom says throughout the film is, “You know what? All I did was do my job!”
“There’s a story that’s not in the movie, which takes place when Elvis dies: When the colonel hears the sad news, the first thing he does is pick up the phone and says, ‘Print more records!’—which was met with annoyance. Gee, what a coldhearted man!
“But the colonel answers, ‘Yeah, but you wanted to sell more records, didn’t you? I’m just doing what you want! Like, as soon as an icon dies, we all want to rush out and listen to his music. So I’m keeping him alive for you!’
“As you can see, it’s a complicated relationship… between art and commerce. And it’s one of the most extraordinary stories from that era in America.”
A crucial element to this extraordinary cinematic feast and fusion of music and drama is Austin’s crackerjack performance, which should catapult the actor to the Oscar derby next year.
While Austin doesn’t look as “broodingly pretty” as the so-called “King of Rock ‘n Roll,” the 30-year-old American did everything he could to snugly slip into Elvis’ skin and capture his essence.
Prior to being cast in the title role, he spent five months developing the character to make himself the strongest contender for the part. He then reached out to Baz to audition for the role by submitting a video of himself playing the piano and singing the popular song “Unchained Melody,” which Elvis had covered in 1977—the same year the celebrated singer-actor died of a heart attack, “likely brought on by his addiction to prescription barbiturates.”
In “Elvis,” Austin dons over 90 costumes. In Tom Hanks’ case, his hair, makeup and prosthetics teams spent between three and five hours a day, depending on how old the character needed to be for the day’s shoot.
But how did Austin prepare for the daunting task of bringing Elvis to life?
“I had those two years where I didn’t do anything else but just obsess over the role. Essentially, I just followed where my curiosity would take me every day. I had the greatest people around me—Polly Bennett was my incredible movement coach [who also worked with Rami Malek in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’]. Then, there’s my dialect coach, singing coach and karate instructor — we did a lot of that work.
“I tried to be as meticulous as possible, but at the end of the day, what was most important was finding Elvis’ humanity. What I was most fascinated by was stripping away the icon, shaking off the caricatures and the Halloween costumes of Elvis, and getting down to who he was when he’s in an empty room by himself at the end of the day.
“How did Elvis wake up in the morning? What was the inner life of this incredibly sensitive and spiritual man. It was about finding out how he evolved over the years. That was sort of my process.”
But an actor can’t go through something so rigorous without it affecting you or changing your perspective.
“Yes. So, as far as what stuck with me… my relationship to fear has changed a lot because of the amount of pressure I felt during this whole process,” Austin admitted. “I mean, it was such a huge responsibility. I was scared that I was going to fail him, his legacy or his family… and all the fans around the world who love him so much. There was too much responsibility to feel fear on a daily basis.
“But then, there was also a good lesson in it… because Elvis also felt fear! He had moments where his career was on the line, like that episode in 1968. There were many moments in his life like that, where he talks about his own stage fright. So, I could always rest in the fact that Elvis did feel fear, yet he was able to do extraordinary things.
“Another huge thing for me is to be able to sit next to Kelvin, Yola, and Alton here. Elvis’ relationship with their characters puts his life in context. The fact that we wouldn’t have Elvis without Black music, that’s really giving credit where credit is due.”
For Olivia, who turns in an affecting — and affectionate — depiction of Priscilla Presley, working with Baz was the cherry on top of a delicious acting assignment.
“Baz certainly is this beautiful, mad genius with this crazy amount of inspiration, curiosity and commitment,” the Australian actress said. “I loved sitting in that space with a man who is unapologetically himself, always asking questions and always very open. I took a lot of inspiration from that.”
Discussing Priscilla’s journey from her perspective—from being a newlywed, to becoming the woman who finally puts herself first — the actress said that creating the character was no walk in the park.
“Absolutely not,” she quipped. “When we meet Priscilla [in the film], she’s this bright young woman who gets thrown into the beautiful chaos that is Elvis’ life. Marriage is hard… although I myself have yet to experience marriage… but let alone when you’re married to the most famous man in the world!
“Then, we see her getting tested as a young woman and mother, and her capacity to give was expanded way beyond what she thought possible. So, it only makes sense that after their experience together, not to mention his infidelities and all the ensuing drama, Priscilla did step forward and finally said, “Enough is enough! I also need to look after myself.”
So you can imagine what a relief it was for Olivia and the rest of the “Elvis” team to hear that Priscilla loved the film.
“Everybody went, ‘Whoa, OK!,’ recalled Olivia. “I’m so happy that she’s happy. Everybody worked so hard, so the fact that she has given the film two thumbs up is really great.”
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