It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the chance to play Elvis Presley in a biopic helmed by razzle-dazzle director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), and Austin Butler was struggling to record his audition tape. The actor best known for the short-lived Sex and the City spinoff The Carrie Diaries and a small role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had been tasked with showing Luhrmann he could sing, too, but the rendition of “Love Me Tender” he recorded felt too much like an impersonation.
“So I spent a couple days and I didn’t quite know what I was gonna do,” Butler tells us during a recent virtual press event for Elvis (watch above). “And during that time I’m watching these documentaries… and this hit me like a freight train when I learned it, which is that Elvis’s mom passed away when he was 23. And it hit me so hard ‘cause that was the exact same age I was when my mom died… Elvis feels so far away ‘cause you look at him in this godlike way or as a caricature or whatever it is. But to me in that moment, I understood what that grief felt like.”
After waking up from a nightmare that this mother was dying all over again, Butler poured that shared sense of grief into a haunting early-morning taping of “Unchained Melody” that he performed in his bathrobe.
Luhrmann was moved to pieces.
It was “almost mythical,” the filmmaker says. “It’s this young guy in a bathrobe playing a piano and crying up to the heavens… You can tell how the spirit of Elvis was in him from the get-go. I just think he was destined to play the role.”
It’s why Luhrmann cast Butler, 30, over other better known contenders like Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Butler is drawing early raves for the performance, but it was an experience that took a severe toll on him. As the actor revealed shortly after the movie’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, he was rushed to the hospital shortly after wrapping the film.
“My body, just the day after I finished, it just gave up,” explains Butler, who was initially admitted with suspected appendicitis.
“He was pushing himself too hard,” Luhrmann admits.
“I visited him while he was in the hospital,” explains co-star Olivia DeJonge, who plays Elvis’s wife Priscilla. “You know, he really threw himself into that role and really dedicated so much of himself to Elvis.”
Elvis follows the beloved music icon from his childhood to earliest performances and through the end of his life, with an emphasis on his complicated relationship with longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who has long been blamed for overworking and exploiting Presley, which could have factored into the singer’s death at only 42 in 1977.
The film also tackles one especially complex aspect of Presley’s legacy: his relationship with Black music, and the notion 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 enjoy the same heights of success.
“Elvis grew up in the hood,” says Alton Mason (who plays one of those artists, Little Richard), referencing the predominantly Black Memphis neighborhood in which his family lived. “He grew up in the hood, surrounded by Black people, during a time of segregation.”
Mason and co-stars Yola Quartey (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (B.B. King) argue that in depicting the Black artists that influenced Presley on Beale Street in the 1950s, Elvis is commemorating their seismic contributions to American music.
“The real issue was that Elvis was a white kid who overnight becomes rich,” Luhrmann says. “And it took until Michael Jackson [in the 1980s], really, [until] Black artists were earning commiserate incomes to white artists.
“I hope the film contextualizes it: No Black music, no Elvis.”
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo