It was a unique opportunity, the chance to play Elvis Presley in a biopic directed by dazzling director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), and Austin Butler was having trouble recording his audition tape. The actor best known for the ephemeral sex and the city spin off Carrie’s notebooks and a small role in Once upon a time in Hollywood had been tasked with showing Luhrmann that he could sing too, but the rendition of “Love Me Tender” he recorded sounded too much like an imitation.
“So I spent a few days and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Butler told Us during a recent virtual press event for Elvis (see above). “And during that time I watch these documentaries…and it hit me like a freight train when I found out that Elvis’ mother died when he was 23. so smitten because it was the exact same age I was when my mother died… Elvis feels so far away because you look at him in that divine way or like a caricature or whatever. for me, in that moment, I understood what that grief felt like.
After waking up from a nightmare where this mother was dying again, Butler poured that shared sense of grief into a haunting early morning recording of “Unchained Melody” which he performed in his bathrobe.
Luhrmann was torn to pieces.
It was “almost mythical,” says the filmmaker. “It’s this young man in a bathrobe playing the piano and crying to the sky… You can tell how much the spirit of Elvis was in him from the start. I just think he was meant to play the role.
That’s why Luhrmann threw Butler, 30, over other better-known suitors like Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Butler draws early praise for the performance, but it was an experience that hurt him. As the actor revealed shortly after the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, he was rushed to hospital shortly after finishing the film.
“My body, just the day after it ended, it just gave up,” says Butler, who was initially admitted with suspected appendicitis.
“He was pushing himself too hard,” admits Luhrmann.
“I visited him while he was in the hospital,” says co-star Olivia DeJonge, who plays Elvis’ wife Priscilla. “You know, he really threw himself into this role and really dedicated himself to Elvis.”
Elvis follows the beloved music icon from her childhood to early performances and through to the end of her life, focusing on her complicated relationship with longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) , who has long been accused of overworking and exploiting Presley, which may have factored into the singer’s death at just 42 in 1977.
The film also tackles a particularly complex aspect of Presley’s legacy: his relationship with black music and the idea that cultural appropriation played into his stratospheric rise at a time when the African-American singers who influenced him (and in many cases performed songs like “Hound Dog” first) couldn’t experience the same heights of success.
“Elvis grew up in the neighborhood,” says Alton Mason (who plays one such artist, Little Richard), referring to the predominantly black neighborhood of Memphis in which his family lived. “He grew up in the neighborhood, surrounded by black people, during a time of segregation.”
Mason and his co-stars Yola Quartey (sister Rosetta Tharpe) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (BB King) argue that in portraying the black artists who influenced Presley on Beale Street in the 1950s, Elvis commemorates their seismic contributions to American music.
“The real problem was that Elvis was a white kid who got rich overnight,” Luhrmann says. “And it took until Michael Jackson [in the 1980s]really, [until] Black artists were earning income sympathetic to white artists.
“I hope the film contextualizes it: no black music, no Elvis.”
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo
Elvis opens Friday.
Watch the trailer: