This story about “Elvis” director Baz Luhrmann first appeared in “The Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
He started with Elvis as metaphor and wound up staring at Elvis the man. At least that’s how Baz Luhrmann describes the journey with “Elvis”, his extravagant semi-biopic about the poor kid from Tupelo who shocked the world, became the king of rock ‘n’ roll, got it all, squandered it all on drugs, lethargy and bad movies and, every so often, got it all back.
An over-the-top two-hour-and-39 minute musical epic featuring Austin Butler’s uncanny recreation of Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks’ curious take on his brilliantly manipulative and predatory manager, Colonel Tom Parker, “Elvis” is big and bold and silly and messy and kind of wonderful, taking liberties with Elvis’ story but selling it all so dramatically that it made $286 million in theaters after its Cannes Film Festival premiere.
As we began our Zoom interview, I couldn’t resist showing Luhrmann a large orange square of cloth.
I have to tell you, I’m a little older than you are, and I saw Elvis in concert in 1976.
At the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California. And my wife saw him before that, in 1973, and sat in the front row and got his scarf. So this thing in my hand is an authentic Elvis scarf.
Stop it! God, ’73 would have been so interesting. That was the Hawaiian special, which was the last time he truly, truly looked great. And then he would turn it off, like, “I’m so tired of playing Elvis Presley.”
Yeah. When I saw him in ’76, it was not a good show. But there was one amazing moment with the song “Fever.” He was Elvis for those three minutes, and then it was gone.
That’s why I end the movie the way I do (with Elvis’ tremendous performance of “Unchained Melody” from one of the final concerts before his death in 1977). The estate, everyone, tries to hide that footage. I really had to fight to put that in, because they’re like, “Oh, my God, we want to kill that imagery.” I said, “No, no, you don’t get it. Yes, the body is corrupt. He’s such a mess getting to the piano, he can barely stand up. But when he sings, he may sing the best he’s ever sung in his life.” And then he looks at the audience and smiles, and Austin does the smile and we get Elvis.
Was Elvis’ music a presence in your life before this or was he just a guy on the radio and in bad movies?
I’ve been re-examining this. In my teens we lived in this tiny country town in the middle of nowhere (Herons Creek, in New South Wales, Australia). And while I was making the movie, I was interested in Elvis as canvas. I was motivated more like Shakespeare taking Richard II and exploring a bigger idea, or “Amadeus” — yes, it’s about Salieri and Mozart and the conceit that Salieri got Mozart to write the Requiem to kill him is preposterous. But it allows you to explore the bigger idea of jealousy. So that’s where I was coming from — that and Colonel Parker and Elvis as the sell and soul of America.
It was only after I made the movie that I realized how he was with me all my life in so many moments, whether it was when I was a kid doing ballroom dancing in a country town and asking the guy to play “Burning Love” because it could really get people going, or my grandmother making the white jumpsuit for Latin dancing. And then I remembered that at the cinema my dad ran, we always had an Elvis matinee. So I had a fandom, youthfully, and then I sort of tucked it away when I got into Bowie and Artaud and Brecht, because it wasn’t cool to love Elvis if you were doing Bertolt Brecht.
You’re interested in Elvis as a canvas, as a metaphor. And yet the movie’s not going to work unless you can also show us Elvis the person.
You are right. And without Austin, I don’t think we would’ve achieved it. He lived Elvis 24/7 for two years. His work ethic was on another level, and he found the humanity, the empathy and the inner life of Elvis — the shy, geeky, insecure kid who is so ashamed when his dad goes off to prison, who lives in one of the few white houses in the Black community, but who also has trucker sideburns and was fluid in fashion before that word even existed. He was bullied and attacked — but he didn’t back away, he doubled down.
You kind of double down, too: There are a lot of moments when you rather gleefully take liberties with the true events of Elvis’ life.
Mm-hmm. I moved time and place and did what we call compressions. The theater director Peter Brook wrote a book called “The Empty Space” where he said, “Look, if pointy shoes from the 1840s in France make you feel a certain thing, then change the shape of the shoe. You’ve got to show what it felt like to be there.” Well, what did it feel like to be there with Elvis? It’s hard to truly imagine the terror he struck in the older generation.
It’s funny because in Cannes, where your film premiered, I spent some time with Riley Keough (the actress and daughter of Elvis’ only child, Lisa Marie). I asked her if she was bothered by the way it changed the facts, and she said she loved it because it treated her grandfather and her family with such respect. It was crazy.
I met with the family early and then I got estranged from them somewhat because of the pandemic. They couldn’t dictate anything, but (Elvis’ ex-wife) Priscilla, rightly so, probably thought, “Well, Baz can be a bit wack. What’s he going to do with our lives and how can this kid possibly do my husband?” Then we showed it to them, but the screening was while I was flying to L.A. I’ve been through some scary screenings, but my stomach was turning. When my plane landed, I rang the theater and a security guard was there. I said, “Did Priscilla leave?” And the guard said, “No, she’s still in there crying.”
I got an email a few hours later, and it was the best moment of the whole journey. She said, ‘I know I was hard on you,’ and then she went on and said other things which I won’t share. It was a weight lifting. And we all ended up down in Memphis and we had a barbecue out of the back of Graceland. (Laughs) Can you imagine being in the Jungle Room having a cocktail?