“Elvis,” the epic, big-screen spectacle that explores the life and music of Elvis Presley has finally landed on Philippine cinemas. Directed by visionary, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, the story is seen through the prism of Elvis’ complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker, which is played in the film by Tom Hanks.
As told by Parker, the film delves into the complex dynamic between the two spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. But while both Hanks and Austin Butler, who plays Elvis, give notable performances, it is the latter’s handling of the rock and roll legend’s character that people are talking about.
Priscilla Presley, Elvis' ex-wife, after watching the movie in a private screening, was very much impressed with Butler. “I think it’s his first film role, and he must have spent the last year, every single minute, watching Elvis. He had him down like you cannot believe.” Well, in truth, he’s had small parts in “The Dead Don’t Die” and “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”
Still, how did this relative newbie pull it off?
“Austin went on an extraordinary journey to play this role but, more importantly, to discover this human being, Elvis,” said Luhrmann. “In the same way that Marilyn Monroe isn’t just another movie star—she embodies a time, a place, a sensibility, a symbology—Elvis as we came to know him happened in a flash. One minute he’s a truck driver and the next minute he’s the most famous man in the world. He becomes famous in the [American] South, and within a couple of years he’s on ‘Ed Sullivan’ and he’s the most talked about, most provocative, most famous young man in the world and a millionaire overnight.
“Certainly, stars like Sinatra had made women swoon before Elvis, but Elvis’s popularity intersected with the emergence of teenagers as an insatiable market force, connecting directly with their idols through radio and television. The level of rapid celebrity and wealth had no precedent and Elvis was on his own. As he said later in life, ‘It’s very hard to live up to an image.’”
Butler acknowledges the challenge of bringing such a legend to life in the big screen. “I was fortunate to have so many people to help me,” Butler says, “starting with Baz. The brilliant thing about Baz is that, in the most gentle and caring way, he can take you to a place where you can do more than you ever thought possible. He creates an environment where you’re free to make mistakes, and free to try things.”
To internalize Elvis’s physicality, Butler worked with movement coach Polly Bennett prior to filming and then all the way through the shoot. “She helped me enormously not only to move the way he did, but to understand what makes a person move in the way they do,” Butler says.
But to speak and sing in the icon’s distinct manner was the real key to the role, and so the actor also worked with a number of different vocal coaches, “because the voice is so important, and the dialect,” says the young actor. “And Elvis’ voice really changed over the years.”
But according to Luhrmann, Butler already had something to build on. “He was capable of actually singing so much like Elvis from that era, this kind of early, rough, rock and roll punk sound,” Luhrmann shares. “At the same time, Austin's job was to reveal the man not in the public light, but the man when he's tinkering at a piano and he's sad and he's singing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ Reveal the private Elvis and most of all, reveal the humanity and the spirituality of the man. While I really respect the craft of the ‘tribute artist,’ this is fundamentally different work; it's acting through song as opposed to impersonating an icon.”
For more on Butler’s transformative performance, watch the featurette “Becoming Elvis” at https://youtu.be/Ae83ixhK_lo]