Director Baz Luhrmann on Oscar-nominated 'Elvis'
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Elvis Presley is still the greatest-selling solo artist of all time. His meteoric rise and fall make up the story in “Elvis,” the feature film starring Austin Butler as the “King of Rock and Roll” released last June.
This Oscar season, the film picked up eight nominations, including one for Butler’s performance: Best Actor. True to director Baz Luhrmann’s other projects — think Moulin Rouge, Australia and the Great Gatsby — it’s big. But so was Presley, so the larger-than-life style of the film matches the star’s, “extraordinary, almost operatic life,” Luhrmann says.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi into poverty in 1935. He grew up in a segregated, primarily-Black community. He drew inspiration from Black musical greats like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and B.B. King.
While critics of the singer say he co-opted Black styles for his personal gain, Luhrmann says Presley gave credit where credit was due and that there’s a difference between appropriation and inspiration.
“No American Black music, no Elvis. No doubt about it,” Luhrmann says. “He grows up in the Black community in the [1950s], he was a rebel. It was dangerous to be singing and associating with Black artists… What you find is actually the lineage is there.”
Austin Butler, Baz Luhrmann and Tom Hanks. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Luhrmann credits Presley as one of the first punks, wearing eyeliner and flamboyant outfits on stage while combatting stereotypes. While younger generations may see Presley as a Halloween costume or caricature of times past, Luhrmann says Butler’s portrayal of the singer revealed his humanity.
“You think you know them, but you don’t,” Luhrmann says. “My job was to find out for myself who he really was and what the journey really was.”
Butler shares the screen with Tom Hanks, who plays Presley’s conniving, almost Svengali-like manager Colonel Tom Parker. Parker builds up Presley’s career, but also fuels his drug addiction, traps him in a Vegas deal and limits his performance options, such as turning down a film with Barbra Streisand on his behalf.
“When Elvis dies, the colonel is informed and he picks up the phone and he says, ‘Print more records.’ That’s the first thing he does,” Luhrmann says. “Now, we would all go, ‘What a cold-hearted person.’ But he would go, ‘No, no, you wanted the records. I’m there to keep you and Elvis together. You wanted Elvis to do two shows a day. You wanted more Elvis. You wanted him to be a God. I just facilitated your love for him and his love for you.”
Luhrmann describes himself as a “romance addict,” and while the film exists somewhat like a love letter to Presley, it’s also about more than that. Luhrmann says he tried to use the film as a canvas to explore America as a whole in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
“What’s so great about America is that it’s such a potpourri of possibilities and invents new things, but it also sells very well,” he says. “But when selling gets out of control, then it destroys the soul. And that’s really the underlying gesture of the movie.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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