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When it comes to Baz Luhrmann's new film Elvis (out June 24), the director is less interested in the icon than the man — an evolving artist in a celebrity culture that was also changing. "This was about exploring America in the '50 and the '60s and the '70s, and Elvis was at the center of culture for the good, the bad and the ugly in various ways," the maker of Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby tells EW. "It's a bit like [how] Shakespeare takes a historical figure, and uses it to look at a bigger picture."
Elvis is neither biopic nor musical in any traditional sense, but rather, an impressionist tapestry (in the director's signature whirlwind style), using one man to explore deeper truths. We caught up with Luhrmann, 59, on his way to Las Vegas for the exhibitors' showcase CinemaCon to learn more about his burning love for Elvis and what audiences can expect from his first feature film in close to a decade.
Warner Bros. Pictures
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Elvis Presley has his own extensive filmography and there have been many representations of him on-screen over the years, so what made you want to put your own spin on this story?
BAZ LUHRMANN: I was a fan when I was young. We had a little movie house in my hometown [Herons Creek, Australia] for a short period and we used to have the Elvis matinees, so I came to know Elvis through the movies. I loved him as a child. But I'm not doing a biopic of Elvis Presley. On the one hand, Americans have this ability to absorb. There's such a diversity in America, of all kinds of cultures and peoples and inputs. There's an openness to taking all sorts of things and making something new. I love that energy. There's also a really good energy about the sell, the enthusiasm of, "Come and get it, this is great." When those two things are really in balance, that's a great thing. When they get out of balance, tragedy ensues. There's been a lack of that balance lately. We are really too much about the sell now. That motivated me to commit to this idea of using Colonel Tom Parker, the ultimate seller, who was never a Colonel, never Tom, never Parker [the Dutchman's real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk]. He was really a carnival barker, who saw this kid and goes, "That's a great act." That's the beauty and the tragedy of the movie — you see them rise and fall.
Music is essential to your body of work, but would you call this a musical?
It's a drama. But music in this film is as important as words. Because Elvis was a man of few words. When he spoke, he spoke with such intent and meaning, but where he really communicated himself was through song. Austin Butler is incredible when he sings the early Elvis. And we also have the latter Elvis blended in. You hear a lot of classic Elvis, but we also have in the score all sorts of DNA and some contemporary interpretations — ways to make younger audiences understand what Elvis felt like. It isn't a nostalgia piece. While respecting and loving the fans, I'm opening Elvis' journey out to a new audience that knows only the guy in the jumpsuit and doesn't understand that he was a rebel. He was the first real pop-cultural youth rebel on a mass level.
Where does Elvis fit into your equation of who you are as an artist?
I come from a very tiny town in the middle of nowhere on a highway. We had a farm and Dad had all sorts of artists live with us. It left in me a need to always journey and to absorb. I'm still fulfilled by just watching people and engaging and meeting new people. And I think Elvis was like that. Elvis was always in pursuit of some sort of impossible dream. And it's the impossibility of it that keeps you moving forward. I thought at first it was a very intellectual, academic reason why I thought it would make a great exploration, but I've come to understand that his journey and mine are not dissimilar in the sense that, for different reasons, Elvis through music and for myself through story, it was our escape from the world around us and also our way to travel. It's taken us far and wide, but we're still searching.
Your work is visually sumptuous. What makes Elvis a good figure for that distinctive cinematic approach?
His life fits beautifully into three acts. There's Elvis the punk, if you like, the original punk rocker, the rebel. Then there's Elvis the movie man, and that's when he is pop and family-friendly. And then there's '70s Elvis, which is epic. The Apocalypse Now of musicals is what I've joked about calling the movie — and that's the '70s period. It's so sprawling and it's beautiful, but it's powerful. It's a three-act pop-cultural opera.
You searched very hard to find the right man for the job. Why was it Austin Butler?
He found me. I received this videotape of this young man in a flood of tears playing "Unchained Melody," and I thought, "Wow, what is that? How is that happening?" And then I got a call from Denzel Washington, who gave me a cold call. I did not know Denzel. And he said, "I've just worked with this guy on stage. I've never seen a work ethic like it." And I'm like, "Okay, I must see him." Honestly, I put him through the wringer, but he lived Elvis. What he's managed to do is not do an impersonation, but to live Elvis, to the extent that he's humanized him.
Warner Bros. Pictures
If you had to pick one Elvis song and one Elvis film as essential primers for Elvis, what would they be?
I can't do the song because he had 900 recordings. But I can pick a film. He said to Priscilla once, "I've never made a great film." That was his wish, that he'd be like James Dean. He makes King Creole in New Orleans before he goes away to the army. He shows real acting chops. That was his greatest sadness — after the Army, he did all the musicals. He always wanted to do a great role, and he was capable of it. He was going to be in A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand, but the Colonel got in the way of that. King Creole is a great little noir, and he showed real potential. That was quashed when essentially the Colonel thought, Well, we're just going to make more money out of you singing songs.
Look, I love some of the cute little musicals, but he got caught in a Hollywood bubble and he never got back to that dream of doing great serious roles.
What do you feel is missing most when people talk about Elvis?
You can't discuss Elvis or America in the '50s, '60s and '70s, without talking about the issue of race. I spent so much time in and out of Memphis. I had a workspace in the back of Graceland. We did the academic work, but I also lived in the field and met people who knew Elvis. And I met a man called Sam Bell. When Elvis was a young kid and his father had been to jail and was doing itinerate work, he suddenly had to move with his mom alone into one of the few white houses in the Black community during segregation. And this man, Sam Bell, and the gang of other kids, adopted Elvis, and they would run off to juke joints and gospel tents. Sam told me verbatim these stories. Elvis actually lived in the Black community. He didn't just synthesize Black music and soul and rhythm and blues, but he loved country as well. And he loved white gospel music and he loved anything new.
For those that are not fans, Elvis is the guy in the white jumpsuit. He's in Lilo and Stitch in a white jumpsuit. But what's been lost is Elvis' capacity to unite and bring things together. He was a deeply spiritual guy. His No. 1 love was gospel music. Yes, there's his good looks. Yes, there's this incredible musicality. There's the voice. Yes, there's his ability to adapt and absorb and the phrasing of songs. And let's be honest, he is a very sexy man. But what people have forgotten was that he was a deeply sensitive, caring, shy, and spiritual guy. That got lost in the wash.
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