Baz Luhrmann brought a hunk of burning love to Cannes on Wednesday with the world premiere of Elvis, his 2½ hour tribute to Elvis Presley. The streets were packed with dozens of black electric BMWs (the festival’s official vehicle) taking the glitterati to an 80-minute red carpet, including stars Tom Hanks and Austin Butler, but also Kylie Minogue, the Australian director’s compatriot. Luhrmann (who played the Green) Fairy in Moulin Rouge!) and Sharon Stone. A handful of Elvis impersonators paraded through the city streets, while Luhrmann accentuated his all-black formal attire (silky shirt, bolero jacket, and trousers) with a glittering chain-draped belt and thick, sparkly buckle adorned with ELVIS in all capital letters.
It’s hard to think of any other subject – or any other filmmaker – whose ostentatious, over-the-top, maximalist styles would fit so perfectly with an event that reveled in cinematic peacocking. Lurhmann is a child of Cannes: his debut in 1992 Strictly Ballroom was a sensation at the festival’s midnight slot, and his films were the Opening Night selection twice, in 2001 Moulin Rouge! and 2013 The Great Gatsby†
The Cannes premiere audience can be notoriously effusive – standing ovations are de rigueur-but Elvis scored an impressive 12-minute sustained applause after it ended. The candy-colored kaleidoscopic biopic is a full-throttle, electric boogie remix of Elvis (a galvanic Austin Butler) and his nuclear-splitting cultural blast in mid-century American life, seen through the eyes of Svengali executive Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks, eerily fat fit and with a bizarre accent that is Dutch via West Virginia).
It’s been 45 years since the untimely death of the oversized boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who generated hit after hit after hit, from ‘Hound Dog’ to ‘Jailhouse Rock’, from ‘A Little Less Conversation’ to ‘Suspicious Minds’. He helped mainstream the liberating, hip-shaking rhythms of rock & roll into the ’50s, turning Hollywood stardom into his own lowbrow cash cow in the 1960s and almost single-handedly invented modern Las Vegas with its extensive residencies in gigantic casino auditoriums in the 1970s. Elvis’ career epitomizes the ridiculous and the sublime, thanks in no small part to Colonel Tom Parker – the man who took a whopping 50% of Elvis’ profits and locked him in a straitjacket of contractual obligations and cheap merchandise deals. And that is what Luhrmann wants to emphasize.
“There would have been no Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker, there would have been no Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis,” said Tom Hanks at Thursday’s packed press conference. “It was a symbiotic relationship.”
Luhrmann sees it as more than that. “It’s about jealousy,” he explained. “One of my favorite movies growing up was Miloš Forman Amadeus† Is Amadeus really about Mozart or is it about the jealousy between Salieri and Mozart? And Salieri said, ‘God, I did everything right and you put all that talent into that horrible grotesque person?’” Elvis is a homage film – make no mistake, the subject is bathed in a creeping light – but Luhrmann goes for a grander statement. “It’s an exploration of America in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” he said. “But it’s also the relationship between the art and the sales – the show and the business, the showman and the snowman. That’s what the big idea really is.”
For Butler, it was all about cracking that gilded legend, the rhinestone-studded, jumpsuit facade that is an almost impenetrable iconic part of Americana. He spent two years studying every bit of archival footage and audio recordings. “I was just going down the rabbit hole of obsession,” said Butler, in a baritone accent still tinged with a bit of Elvis. “That’s the tricky part: you saw him as this icon or the wallpaper of society, and tried to take all that away and find the very human nature of him that went deeper than all of that. That was the fascinating thing for me. It was the joy of my life.” It could even land him an Academy Award nomination, for a wildly possessed physical feat that captures every pelvic thrust, hip wiggle, and lip grin. “I practiced till it got to my marrow,” he said.
Hanks wasn’t all that prepared for his corpulent transformation. “I didn’t know what Colonel Tom Parker looked like, I had never heard his voice,” he said. “I thought he would be a tall, stentorian man with a hat, full of pomp.” Luhrmann made such a convincing pitch to Hanks that the two-time Oscar winner agreed on the spot. The conversation lasted seven minutes before I said, ‘I’m your man. Now please show me a picture of what the Colonel looks like.” Then he showed it to me. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?!?’”
The biggest hurdle that Luhrmann faced was getting the approval of the Presley family. Before starting production, he met Elvis’ widow Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie and granddaughter Riley Keough (who, in a twist of showmanship – albeit accidentally – that would have excited Colonel Tom Parker, was in Cannes this week with her directorial debut, the bittersweet Native American drama war pony† When Luhrmann finished a rough cut, he shared it with them. “I can’t tell you how long those two hours were,” he said. And when it was over, he heard that Priscilla was in tears. “I thought, ‘What have I done?'” he admitted. But all was well: a few days later, he received a glowing text from her saying that the movie had really taken his mind. “She said, ‘If my husband were here today, he would look Austin in the eye and say, ‘Damn, you to be me.'”
Luhrmann’s main concern was making a 20e century musician is feeling relevant today. Because he already anachronistically used the modern sounds of alt-rock and hip-hop in his soundtracks before Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsbyhe does the same trick again with Elvis† “I’m not doing it to make a groovy album,” he said. He wants people to understand how shockingly different Elvis’ music felt at that moment. “So as Austin walks down the street, Doja Cat translates it into rap so a younger audience who really don’t know Elvis can understand how sharp that music was.”
Luhrmann also wanted to communicate that Elvis’s music felt dangerous† He pointed to a 1956 concert in Russwood Park that is a major turning point in the film, where Elvis shows the authorities lewd defiance, even licking a hunting dog on stage. “He did indeed bully that plastic dog,” he said. “He spat at the audience, rolled on the ground. He was the original punk rocker. And the music was so much more aggressive and feedback and louder and scratchy and crazy. That is real. He did. I just want a younger audience to feel what it was like to be there.”