If you’re 25, Elvis Presley died 20 years before you were born. “Oh, yeah, they don’t care [about Elvis],” said “Elvis” director Baz Luhrmann, who sat down with me in a sunny suite at the JA Marriott shortly before his film premiered in Cannes. “In a way, I like that. Because they’re very honest about it. Even when I was a fan as a kid, I was more Bowie and Elvis became wallpaper. And I think they know him through ‘Lilo and Stitch,’ or he’s in a video game. Like he’s the guy in the white jumpsuit.”
Never say that the Australian director isn’t down for a challenge. On his first trip to Cannes three decades ago, he walked the Croisette in a warm wool suit looking for financing for his first feature, “Strictly Ballroom.” Since then he’s made “Romeo + Juliet,” Cannes 2000 opening-night dazzler “Moulin Rouge,” “Australia,” and his last film, “The Great Gatsby,” which debuted at Cannes in 2013. With a dense wall of visuals and music, he sets out to hypnotize, overwhelm, and entertain.
Telling the Elvis story through three decades of his life, from rangy heartthrob to bloated lounge singer, ticks all of those boxes. After a decade of development, “Elvis” also became the first film that fell to a pandemic lockdown after star Tom Hanks, who portrays the Elvis Svengali, Colonel Tom Parker, contracted Covid. Luhrmann feared his movie was dead — but also wondered if that wasn’t such a bad thing; Elvis seemed like more than even he could handle.
“It’s really hard to remember just how naive the world was,” said Luhrmann. “We had no idea. That Covid thing was like a bomb with Hazmat suits and we got locked down. And at first I loved it, because there was so much pressure on me. I felt like, ‘Have I really got this wrangled?’ I was with my kids and everything. I used to dress up every night and have crazy dinners and go like, ‘Wow, maybe I don’t have to make the movie.’ You know, I’m off the hook again. Tom wasn’t sure: ‘Well, maybe we can wait until February when it’s all over.’ The film was absolutely slipping away. And I got time to re-look at the structure. I pretty much restructured the entire first act.”
He’d already spent 10 years moving “Elvis” from one back burner to another. “I’d been talking about using Elvis as a way of exploring America,” he said. “And then at some point Warners buys the estate thinking I’m going to do it. Actually, the world had changed to this idea of the commercial carnival barker figure who puts his name on everything and knows how to exploit people and emotions and the artist. This suddenly became relevant to me: ‘Well, hang on, this is really important.’ So I came back to the idea of doing it.”
After working with a series of writers (“I wear them out”), Luhrmann took what had been linear storytelling and added layers and compressions, split screens, graphics, and audio in the editing room, packing a crazy amount into the first hour. (He’s not a fan of the episodic approach, having found his Netflix series “The Get Down” to be a grueling experience.) “I just can never make a scene work where he was discovered at Sun Records singing ‘That’s All Right, Mama.’ And so at some point I said, ‘Well, you want to meet him. You want to discover him when he’s singing.'”
Luhrmann used music to layer initial crowd reactions to the way Elvis moved at his Hayride performance. ‘All of a sudden, the girls were screaming, and he actually said, ‘What are they reacting to?’ ‘It’s the way you’re moving.’ And the truth is the pleated trousers and all of that.”
The director also figured out how to cinematically unite the two worlds of Elvis, the juke joint and the gospel tent. That stemmed from obsessive research: Luhrmann not only took over a room at the vast Graceland archives in a barn behind the Presley mansion, but also tracked a childhood friend of Elvis’, Sam Bell, who told the story of the Presleys living in a black neighborhood, Elvis joining his gang, and soaking up both kinds of music. (Bell passed last September.)
“The whole issue of Elvis and race,” said Luhrmann, “you can’t explore America in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and use Elvis at the center of that if you’re not dealing with race.” The film also delves into Presley’s friendship with B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as well as Little Richard (Alton Mason).
The director promised himself he would not make the movie if he couldn’t find someone to embody Presley; he put Harry Styles and Miles Teller through workshops. “It’s a privilege for me that they would put themselves on the line and come in and work with me, because I learned about the script working with them,” Luhrmann said. However, they weren’t quite right.
Then came a taped audition from this young Californian, Austin Butler, who had been a working actor since he was 13 but his highest-profile role was a small part as Manson killer Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“I got this tape of this young guy playing ‘Unchained Melody’ and crying,” Luhrmann said. “It was just strange. I mean, it was so moving. I thought, ‘This isn’t really acting.’ Now I learned years later that it was Austin thinking about his mother, who passed at the same year that Elvis’s mother did.”
Denzel Washington called Luhrmann out of the blue to vouch for Butler’s work ethic; the Oscar-winning actor performed with him on the 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Butler had no idea the veteran star would support him in that way. When Luhrmann met Butler, the actor fooled the director with his southern accent. “He had this kind of naivete about him,” Luhrmann said. “He was kind of Elvis. He has basically lived as Elvis for nearly three years.”
When Priscilla Presley came to see the movie, “she was extremely skeptical that Austin could pull it off,” said Luhrmann. “That was the most nervous screening we’ve ever had. And when she came out, and what she wrote! People forget that Elvis is like cultural wallpaper, but he’s also a father, a husband, a grandfather. So it meant the world to us that the whole family is actually really behind the movie so much.”
Butler opted to stay in Australia during the hiatus, moving in with Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin. “We became very close,” he said. “We had acting and movement coach Polly Bennett down there.”
Luhrmann fixed the script enough to convince Hanks to come back, partly because “we don’t make the Colonel just the bad guy. The Colonel is going to argue that from his point of view, all he was doing was facilitating your love for Elvis. It’s a paradox. We’re not making a judgment about him, it’s up to the audience to decide what they think about the Colonel. He’s not easy to love. The court of public opinion decided he was fleecing Elvis.”
What the Colonel did was keep Presley in Las Vegas and block him from touring because the manager was in exile from Holland without a passport and the ability to travel. (Elvis never did a world tour.) “Also, the Colonel’s got this massive gambling addiction,” said Luhrmann. “He probably lost more money in Vegas than any man in history.”
Luhrmann follows his own biopic rules. “There’s dramatic license and there’s compressions because you’ve got to compress times,” he said. “My rule is, as long as it doesn’t fundamentally change the truth. I mean, you’re telling a 42-year-long life in two-and-a-half hours.”
Luhrmann’s showmanship knows few bounds. He orchestrated the infamous Cannes opening-night party for “Moulin Rouge” as a Spiegeltent nightclub with a hall of mirrors, complete with table-hopping Can-can dancers from the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. Rupert Murdoch and Nicole Kidman DJed and danced on tables. Even Luhrmann, who considers himself the Leonardo da Vinci of party-throwing — he and Anna Wintour collaborate on the Met Ball every year — thinks it was “probably the best party I have ever given. I mean, it just took off.”
The “Elvis” after-party at Cannes was impressive. Along with Hanks, Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla, Sharon Stone, Shakira, Kylie Minogue, and Jeremy O. Harris, and Butler, it included pre-programmed drone Elvis displays in the sky, DJ Diplo debuting Swae Lee and star Austin Butler’s original song from the soundtrack, and a pulsing live performance by Italian rock band and Eurovision winner Måneskin. However, as a studio party it couldn’t scale Luhrmannian heights.
Also in play was new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav along with producer Gail Berman, studio chief Toby Emmerich, and marketing executive Josh Goldstine, who must find the audience for the movie beyond older adults who revere the king of rock ‘n roll. In turn, that task will fall to Butler, not veteran Hanks, who is buried beneath a fat suit and prosthetics.
Team Warners beamed after a 12-minute ovation, but that applause rings hollow when reality bites. Mixed reviews rolled in, especially for Hanks. Of course, the same was true for musical juggernaut “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which landed Rami Malek an Oscar. However, Luhrmann’s dense musical biopic is two hours and 39 minutes long and cost at least $150 million to make and market; the six-month pandemic shut-down in Australia only added to the cost.
So be it. “I make theatrical movies,” said Luhrmann. “It’s a theatrical experience. And the theater simply means a place in which strangers come together in an environment. and for a few moments are united by what happens in the theater, whether my theatrics are good or bad. That’s my only job. That’s my mission. Right now, we haven’t really proved that non-franchise movies can bring all quadrants back into the theater. I consider that to be on my shoulders.”
“Elvis” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters on Friday, June 24.