It feels strange to see Baz Luhrmann in a chair.
The 59-year-old auteur, silver hair coiffed and jewelry sparkling, speaks with the metabolism of a hummingbird. In his black turtleneck, he appears like a marble bust, but radiates a kinetic zeal at odds with the stillness of sitting. His films reflect similar sensibilities, the lysergic adaptations “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby” oozing style and stroboscopic artistry.
Luhrmann’s newest project turns its gaze upon more recent history than 14th century Italy and the Roaring ’20s, instead exploring the American ’50s and ’60s through the starry life of Elvis Presley.
“The great storytellers like Shakespeare, they didn’t really do biographies,” Luhrmann mused in a virtual press conference. “They took a life, and they use the life as a canvas to explore a larger idea.”
“Elvis” stars Austin Butler as the hip-thrusting, soul-stirring rock star. Biopics are often tricky terrain for actors as discursive binaries demand a balancing act — the human and the legend, imitation and interpretation.
Butler himself seemed to have taken a cue from the American beau idéal, clad in cowboy boots and layered rings at the press conference. Pensive and appreciative, his demeanor typifies leading man sensitivity.
Speaking on his casting, the actor admitted in a gentle drawl that “it’s fundamentally getting to explore the humanity of somebody that has become the wallpaper of society … To get to explore that for years now and learn why he was the way that he was … that was really just such a joy that I could do it for the rest of my life.”
Opposite Butler is the titanic Tom Hanks, who plays Colonel Tom Parker. The fraught relationship between musicians and their managers is well-worn terrain for the biopic genre, and “Elvis” appears to follow suit, as the trailer opens with Parker’s ominous voiceover: “There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story.”
While Hanks is unusual casting for a story’s antagonist, Luhrmann defends the choice with the intrinsic nature of storytelling.
“It’s your memory, your version of their life,” the director said, “and people always tell the story of someone else from a perspective.”
The veneers of subjectivity and personal perspective unravel classifications of hero and villain, and with Colonel Parker, Luhrmann leans into the complications. With Elvis, however, the film’s moral scrutiny remains nebulous. Luhrmann douses Elvis in his quintessential glitz, but the film must confront the nuanced and less glamorous elements of his legacy, such as the 10-year age gap between Elvis and his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and Elvis’ relationship to Black culture.
Elvis was christened the king of rock and roll for performing a style of music inextricable from the Black community, and Luhrmann makes no pretenses to minimize the influence. “Black music and culture isn’t a side note, or a footnote,” he said. “It’s absolutely the canvas on which the story is written … If you take that out of the Elvis Presley story, there’s no story.”
The story, in fact, has been in the works for years. Butler admitted he received the part nearly three years ago and used the stretch of time to meticulously research by watching and re-watching old footage.
As Butler internalized Elvis’ personal life, he was also able to externalize the King’s prowess on the silver screen. While Luhrmann’s other films feature anachronistic songs, “Elvis” ties its soundscape to the epoch; however, the music allows its star to show off his vocal chops. The film features Butler’s voice during Elvis’ younger years and a blend of Butler’s and Elvis’ voices for the later tracks.
“We came out with an unusual language, a musical language for the film,” Luhrmann recalled. “Austin would sing all the young Elvis, but from about the ’60s on, we would blend it with the real Elvis.”
The decision to mix voices came, in part, from necessity as early Elvis recordings had an unusably dated quality. The other factor was Luhrmann’s drive to interpret the songs rather than pay simple tribute to them.
“When I first started, it really felt like when you’re a kid and you put on your father’s suit, and the sleeves are much too long, and the shoes are like boats on your feet,” Butler laughed, discussing his preparation for the part. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘This is impossible’ … As time passed, at least for me, I started to feel like I grew into it. And suddenly I felt his humanity more.”
Though the film will arrive in theaters June 24, “Elvis” brims with promise, catalyzed by the filmmaker’s frenetic vision and dazzling cast. With Luhrmann holding open the door, Elvis has once again entered the building.