If you’ve ever seen one of director Baz Luhrmann’s (“The Great Gatsby”) films, you know that music is often a central aspect of his style. “Strictly Ballroom,” Luhrmann’s first film, about Australian ballroom dancers, features dance numbers that are inextricable from the music, including a dancing montage set to Cyndi Lauper and a sultry backstage tango set to Doris Day. “Moulin Rouge!” is probably Luhrmann’s most notable utilization of music in his films, given that the show-stopping jukebox musical soundtrack peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart (and also gave us the killer song that bred a feud between Pink and Christina Aguilera). With Luhrmann’s films, the music doesn’t just accompany the film — it inhabits it.
Luhrmann’s next project, “Elvis,” promises to raise his style to its next challenge, letting the music guide him through the life of one of America’s musical legends: Elvis Presley. Set to release this June, the official trailer offers the chance to get a sneak peek at Luhrmann’s approach to the life of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In addition to getting a first look at the official “Elvis” trailer, The Daily was invited to attend a virtual press conference with Luhrmann and Austin Butler (“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”), who plays Elvis, in conversation with music journalist/author Nelson George.
“Elvis,” according to Luhrmann, is not just centered on the titular character but on the man most involved in his success: Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks (“Greyhound”). Based on the trailer, Hanks’s performance will be interesting to pay attention to for two main reasons: First, that the wholesome Tom Hanks will be playing the (likely ambiguous) villain of the story; second, that Hanks’s accent, while not quite Paolo Gucci, is certainly a little strange.
Truthfully, the “Elvis” trailer itself is interesting but chaotic: a mix of fractured images that could be evoking something about Elvis’s own storyline or could simply be a result of Luhrmann’s postmodern directing style. The color palette appears to shift over the course of the film, pointing to potential visual symbolism as we move through Elvis’s life. Throughout the trailer, Elvis is set apart from the others — through his movement and posture, or through the eye-catching mascara that they use on Butler’s Elvis and his younger iterations.
Despite his familiarity with historical films, this is Luhrmann’s first stab at a biopic. Luhrmann has been attached to an “Elvis” biopic since 2014, but the piece began to gain steam after Hanks signed on in 2019; Butler had also been attached to the project for three years before the film was realized.
In the press conference, Luhrmann clarified his wider approach to the film, referencing storytellers like Shakespeare (specifically in terms of his biographical works on famous kings): “What they did was, they took a life, and they used the life as a canvas to explore a larger idea.” In terms of Presley’s life, Luhrmann says, “It’s a great canvas on which to explore America,” specifically the cultural and social landscape of the 1950s and ’60s time period. Luhrmann and George talked about how the film relates to Elvis’s role in the onset of sexual liberation and Elvis’s relationship to the Black community — both relevant issues to the fabric of that era of American life.
In terms of the music, Luhrmann tried to avoid “nostalgic,” sanitized recordings of Elvis, saying that his often “wildly provocative” real-life performances were something he wanted to capture in the film. Part of the question becomes: How do you bring this iconic, wildly provocative man to life?
Both Butler and Luhrmann talked extensively about the difference between creating an impersonation of someone and creating an interpretation — often the interpretation, while potentially less perfectly accurate, can ring more true. Butler worked with voice and dialect coaches to nail the minutiae of Presley’s vocal quirks and inflection; he also worked with Polly Bennett, the same movement coach who worked with Rami Malek for his Oscar-winning performance as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Although Butler tried to exactly imitate aspects of Elvis’s performance, he was also given a lot of room to move around in his own space as the character. Finding the balance between impersonation and interpretation seems to have worked: Butler has already been praised for the striking resemblance in his interpretation of Elvis’s voice, but based on the trailer it seems that he has brought his own influence to the role as well.
“When I first started, it really felt like when you’re a kid and you put on your father’s suit, and the sleeves are much too long and the shoes are like boats on your feet,” Butler said at the press conference.
This feeling, he explained, eventually changed: “As time passed, at least for me, I started to feel like I grew into it, and suddenly I felt his humanity more.” Humanity, it seems, is a big part of Luhrmann and Butler’s approach to the film: to show Elvis not only as an icon but as a human.
Given the visuals, the potential for killer musical cues and Butler’s interpretation of the film’s subject, it looks like “Elvis” has a lot of the ingredients for a solid biopic. Come June, we’ll know for sure.
Daily Arts Writers Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.