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Baz Luhrmann on ‘Elvis’: ‘Between the sell and soul’

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Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the recent biopic on the King of Rock and Roll, has received love and hate in equal measure. The film is a roller coaster ride through Presley’s life from his humble beginnings to his death at 42 in 1977. “It is more than just a story about the life of Elvis,” says Luhrmann, over video call from Graceland. It is only right that the auteur addressed the press from the Presley mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.

While admitting that Presley’s life is a great one to explore, Luhrmann says his movie is also about America in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. “The film also explores the relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler) and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). It is about show and business, management, control, expectation, creativity, soul and truth. It seemed like a wonderful way to take a great life and great music and explore big ideas.”

Working with a big canvas, Luhrmann says there are some details you cannot leave out. “You can’t do America in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and music without dealing with Black artists and Black music. The journey Elvis went on in his relationship to all these characters throws in such stark questions about our growth and evolution. Along the way, you experience a personal, intimate journey of this guy called Elvis and this other guy called Colonel Tom Parker.”

Preferring not to tell a straight narrative, Luhrmann says he chose to tell the story from Parker’s prism. “You have a two hander between the sell and the soul, between the artist and the character that most people might think of the villain. In his story, he argues, ‘I am not the bad guy’ here. It gives a tremendous dramatic tension to the story and allows you to go places you otherwise would not go and reveal things that you would not be able to reveal.”

A still from the film
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Looking through Parker’s eyes helped the director explore a larger idea of how Elvis, who came from such humble beginnings, rose and like Icarus tragically fell. “Why did that happen? And everyone says, the evil manager is responsible. What Parker argues through the movie is, ‘all I did was my job’.”

The Moulin Rouge! director recounts the story of when Parker heard of Elvis’ death, the first thing he did was to pick up the phone and ask for more records to be printed. “We would think that he was a cold-hearted man. The Colonel would say, but you wanted the records, didn’t you? I was just doing what you wanted. As soon as an icon dies, we all want to rush out and hear his music. I was keeping him alive for you. And you would say ‘Oh, come on, you will make money out of it’. It is a complicated relationship.”

Luhrmann says he created an environment where fear is kept outside the door to a certain degree during the shoot. “We do a robust process of rehearsal and exploration. We got to be fearful and we got to work hard.”



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