Baz Luhrmann on his tragic, razzle-dazzle ‘Elvis’

The film starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in lead roles is out this weekend in the UAE


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Published: Wed 22 Jun 2022, 9:55 AM

Baz Luhrmann is set to unveil Elvis at the Cannes Film Festival, and it goes without saying that the director — one of cinema’s most maximalist moviemakers — is ready to put on a show.

“I’ve been ready to put on a show since I was born,” Luhrmann says in a hotel looking out on Cannes’ Croisette.

Luhrmann was first in Cannes exactly 30 years ago with his debut Strictly Ballroom, which he recalls as initially struggling to make any noise. That’s emphatically not been the case for Elvis, an operatic opus about the larger-than-life music legend that premiered in Cannes with all the clamor of a carnival.

Told with Luhrmann’s signature freewheeling flare, Elvis, which Warner Bros. opens in UAE theaters on June 23, approaches a mostly life-spanning portrait of Presley (played by Austin Butler) as narrated by his infamous manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who helped make Presley a superstar but also manipulated and controlled him.

For a mythologised icon often recalled either in ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ camp or as an epitome of cultural appropriation, Luhrmann’s Elvis seeks to make alive Presley’s power as a radical artistic force forged in Black blues and gospel whose unconventionality posed a threat to mainstream America.

“Everyone has their Elvis,” says Luhrmann.

And it’s clear that Luhrmann’s Elvis — which had its production halted when Hanks tested positive for Covid-19 at the outset of the pandemic — is a kind of capstone for the 59-year-old Australian filmmaker about the nature of show business and daring to be different.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make another film again. Maybe I’ll make a hundred,” says Luhrmann. “But somehow on Elvis, on almost every step in this journey there’s been something unusual, some unique memory. Maybe there will be a film that’s been as extraordinary journey as this film, but I doubt it.”

Was your vision for Elvis always something different than a conventional biopic portrait?

I always wasn’t really about doing a biopic. I was about what Shakespeare does, he takes a historical figure and explores a large idea. I’m a massive fan of Amadeus, which is really not about Mozart. It’s about jealousy. I thought, “Gee, Elvis is kind of that to us.” Whether you like the music or you don’t, he’s at the crossroads of the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I was really looking at this idea of art versus commerce.

You frame Presley’s life around cultural battles, American history and freedom in opposition to powers of repression. Do you consider this film to be ultimately about America?

It’s absolutely about America. The good, the bad and the ugly. I think these two grand forces — one is the new, represented by Elvis, who is brought up in one the few white houses in a Black community. Then he’s one of few white faces in Club Handy on Beale Street, the birthplace of blues and eventually rock ‘n’ roll. Like Eminem. He synthesizes that with country music, with white gospel and makes his own sound. He didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll. But what’s intriguing is that he’s the new.

Part of the way you represent that is in his make-up and a personal style that could approach the feminine. How did that relate to how you saw Presley?

In another time we would have called it dandyism. I mean, Mick Jagger would say it (does Jagger impression) “I was doing it with so much more make-up.” Harry Styles is a great example right now. Harry can have nail polish, a feather boa. Early on, Elvis was bringing to a very conservative white audience the idea. He was extremely manly but wore a knitted tank top tight at the top and long hair, which was considered girly. Eyeliner. He wore base sometimes because he had pimples early on. But there was a fearlessness. He just kind of synthesised things and had his own style. The fearlessness of being able to mix a masculine trouser but with a feminine top. The mixture allowed him, I think, to be beyond just classically attractive. There was an openness to everyone. I think his openness as a person and as a soul was part of his immense effect.

Presley died at the age of 42, never toured outside the U.S. and, as your film captures, was in some sense imprisoned performing in Las Vegas at the end of his life. Is Elvis, like your Romeo + Juliet, a tragedy?

As long as he was moving forward and searching, he was alive. As long as he was taking on new things, he was alive. When he was on stage with an audience, he was in the moment. But the moment there was no longer a chance to search, then it reverses itself. The tragedy is being caught in that casino by someone who needed to keep him there for their own personal reasons. That’s the beginning of the corruption of his spirit. I knew Michael Jackson. I worked with Prince twice. I have an incredible admiration for them. They were magical to be around. But both of them and Elvis truly believed that they were anti-drugs. All three of those icons you can say they were struggling with medication. To quote Elvis, it’s very hard to live up to an image.

You seem quite unrestrained as an artist. But at its heart, Elvis is struggle of an artist to fully express himself without control imposed on him. Do you personally connect to that at all?

I do. I just kind of thought he was the greatest canvas up which to explore these great things in America. Yes, show and biz. The biz and the show. It wasn’t until recently that I realized, hang on, he was from a very small country town. So was I. Hang on, he was always searching and so am I. Even I recognise at my advanced age that I have remarkable freedom. I don’t go for jobs, I just think about what I want to make. It sounds arrogant. Usually most people go, “Ballroom dancing? You must be kidding.” “Shakespeare? Are you mad?” But I didn’t think like that. My job generally is to take things that are considered either boring or old-fashioned or not relevant and shake off the rust. And recode them. Not to change them, just to retranslate them so their value is once again present.

And to do it in a big way on a big-screen canvas. we doubt you could imagine Elvis premiering on a streaming service.

I had to answer a question the other day, do I think cinema is dead. No! I mean, television came along and everyone thought cinema was dead. Look, we want to get in a dark room with strangers and for a few brief moments feel we’re united. I love a superhero picture. I thought The Batman was absolutely brilliant. But man cannot live by Batman alone. Having a film that isn’t a franchise that motivates audiences to go out to the theater. I don’t know if I’m a showman but I’m certainly a theatrical storyteller. And theatrical means the theater.

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