Baz Luhrmann, the cast of ‘Elvis’ talk about cultural appropriation and Austin Butler’s portrayal of stars

Baz Luhrmann, the cast of ‘Elvis’ talk about cultural appropriation and Austin Butler’s portrayal of stars

It was a unique opportunity, the chance to play Elvis Presley in a biopic of director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby), and Austin Butler struggled to record his audition tape. The actor best known for the short-lived Sex and the city spin-off The Carrie Diaries and a small role in Once upon a time in Hollywood had been given the task of showing Luhrmann that he could sing too, but the rendition of “Love Me Tender” he recorded felt too much like an imitation.

“So I spent a few days and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do,” Butler tells us at a recent virtual press event for Elvis (look above). “And during that time I watch these documentaries… and this hit me like a freight train when I heard it, namely that Elvis’ mother died when he was 23. And it hit me so hard because that was exactly the same age who I was when my mother died… Elvis feels so far away because you look at him in this divine way or as a caricature or whatever. But for me in that moment I understood what that sadness felt like.”

After waking from a nightmare that this mother was dying again, Butler poured that shared sense of sadness into a terrifying early morning recording of “Unchained Melody” performed in his bathrobe.

Luhrmann was smashed to pieces.

It was “almost mythical,” says the filmmaker. “It’s this young man in a robe playing the piano and crying to the sky… You can see how Elvis’ spirit was inside him from the beginning. I just think he was destined to play the part.”

ELVIS, Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, 2022. ph: Hugh Stewart /© Warner Bros.  /Courtesy of Everett Collection

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis† (Photo: Hugh Stewart /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy of Everett Collection)

It’s why Luhrmann cast Butler, 30, above other more famous contenders like Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Butler draws early critical acclaim for the performance, but it was an experience that took a heavy toll on him. As the actor revealed shortly after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, he was rushed to hospital shortly after wrapping the film.

“My body, the day after I finished, just gave up,” explains Butler, who was initially admitted with suspected appendicitis.

“He pushed himself too hard,” admits Luhrmann.

“I visited him while he was in the hospital,” explains co-star Olivia DeJonge, who plays Elvis’ wife Priscilla. “You know, he really threw himself into that role and really devoted so much of himself to Elvis.”

Elvis follows the much-loved music icon from childhood to first appearances and to the end of his life, focusing on his complicated relationship with longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who has long been blamed for overwork and exploiting Presley, which contributed to the death of the singer, who was only 42 in 1977.

ELVIS, from left: Austin Butler, as Elvis Presley, Kelvin Harrison Jr., as BB King, 2022. ph: Kane Skennar /© Warner Bros.  /Courtesy Everett Collection

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as BB King in Elvis† (Photo: Kane Skennar /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy of Everett Collection)

The film also deals with a particularly complex aspect of Presley’s legacy: his relationship with black music and the idea that cultural appropriation played a part in his rise to the stratosphere at a time when the African American singers who influenced him (and in many dropped songs like “Hound Dog” first) couldn’t enjoy the same heights of success.

“Elvis grew up in the neighborhood,” says Alton Mason (who plays one of those performers, Little Richard), referring to the predominantly black Memphis neighborhood his family lived in. “He grew up in a neighborhood, surrounded by black people, in a time of segregation.”

Mason and co-stars Yola Quartey (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (BB King) argue that in depicting 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 gets rich overnight,” Luhrmann says. “And it took until Michael Jackson [in the 1980s]For real, [until] Black artists deserved pity for white artists.

“I hope the film puts it into context: no black music, no Elvis.”

— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo

Elvis opens Friday.

Watch the trailer:

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