Elvis rocking and rolling to box-offices this June

Austin Butler steps into Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated film ‘Elvis,’ expected to premiere on Jun. 24. // Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Casting a rose-colored light on memory and time gone by, nostalgia tends to smooth out the rough edges of history and artificially boost the positive qualities of a memory.

While often romanticized, nostalgia still alters and distorts reality and truth. The idea of creating a truthful interpretation of history, then, is made more difficult through heavy nostalgia. Employing nostalgia, an author or filmmaker can craft an enjoyable recreation, an imitation of history, but to create an honest film, one that is truthful and one that says something larger than life, the filmmaker must strip the layers of good feeling away.

This is something that writer and director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!,” “The Great Gatsby”) took several years doing for his newest film, “Elvis,” which details three decades of the rise and fall of the King of Rock and Roll: Elvis Presley. Set for a June 24 release, Warner Brothers has just released the first trailer for the highly anticipated film.

“Elvis is the original punk,” says Luhrmann in a conversation with interviewer Nelson George. “Without nostalgia, he’s really provocative and strange and shocking.”

Luhrmann is not shying away from the strange and shocking quality that Elvis had on his audiences, a quality that Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager who is portrayed in the film by the legendary Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump,” “Philadelphia”), utilizes to his advantage. Both Elvis’s life and his performances were quite a spectacle, and that quality seems to be reflected in the film. In many ways “Elvis” feels larger than life, with a sense of grandeur that is truly fitting for a king.

But Luhrmann doesn’t want audiences to get carried away in the spectacle. At the end of the day, this is the story of a life, of a real person. Also sitting down with George, Austin Butler (“The Shannara Chronicles,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), who plays Elvis, has described the icon as a “tortured person” with a deep “spiritual yearning.” 

There is so much more to Elvis than the spectacle, and this film aims to highlight this. Attempting to highlight both the complicated relationships between Elvis and those close to him, like his manager, and Elvis’s role in the shifting cultural and political landscape of America at that time, the film details a great deal of Elvis’s life.

A prominent and powerful scene in the film shows Elvis as a child experiencing the gospel music of the Black Church. Elvis has a strong connection to Black America, and Luhrmann described Black music and culture as “the canvas on which the story is writ.” Without Black culture, he says, there is no story and no Elvis. Also alluded to in the trailer is Elvis’s connection to the sexual revolution in America.

Butler was cast as the music icon over three years ago, and during that time, he has spent a lot of time in Elvis’s head. Taking on this role, Butler felt a great responsibility to Elvis’s family, his fans and to the King himself to take the role seriously and to bring an honesty to his interpretation. At the beginning, Butler says, it felt similar to when a kid puts on his father’s suit and the fabric hangs around him and he wonders if it will ever fit. But eventually, Butler adds, the suit, and the role, does fit.

Working with voice coaches, performances coaches and with the same movement coach who worked with Rami Malek in his Oscar-winning role of Freddie Mercury in 2019’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for years prior to filming, Butler has brought a high level of dedication to the role. 

Featuring a strong cast and a great director at the helm, the film looks to be an interesting interpretation of the King’s life and career.

Seemingly told by Hank’s Colonel Tom Parker, the story seems to definitely be an interesting one. Parker, as told in the opening line of the trailer, is often cast as a villainous role in the Elvis story, but Luhrmann does not believe there are true villains and heroes in his stories.

There is always a perspective to a story, he says. Every story is someone’s story. Because of this and his dedication to honesty in his interpretation of the story, all the characters are morally gray, meaning that they, like in the real world, are neither all good nor all bad.

To Luhrmann, the great storytellers never told the story of a person’s life. Shakespeare, he says, never wrote a play about King Richard.

Rather, the great storytellers used a life as a canvas to tell larger stories and explore larger ideas. 

Despite many allusions and questions raised in the trailer, audiences will just have to wait until June 24 to find out everything Luhrmann, Hanks and Butler have in store.