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Baz Luhrmann: Why ‘Elvis’ timing was ‘right,’ praises Austin Butler’s ‘devotion’ to role

An Elvis Presley biopic released in 2022 begs the question: Why now?

But for Oscar-nominated director Baz Luhrmann, the question is very simple to answer — the timing was simply right.

Luhrmann’s gripping biopic tells the heartbreaking story of the legendary crooner’s life, legacy, and personal troubles, including his ill-fated marriage to Priscilla Presley.

“I was waiting for the right moment, and also the right way to do it,” Luhrmann told The Post on Wednesday at BFI’s “Baz Luhrmann in conversation” event in London.

“There are two great American gestures, I think. The two that really fascinate me are the ‘big sell’ – the ability to sell well, and the other is the gesture of the new,” Luhrmann explained. “Particularly 50s, 60s, 70s – the ‘new.’ Elvis represents the new. He happened to be in one of the few White Houses during his life, and in the Black community and absorbing the Black community and mixing it with country.”

Luhrmann opened up about the making of the film during BFI's "Baz Luhrmann in conversation" event in London.
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The film focused on the Rock-‘n’-Roll icon’s rise to fame and offered a unique glimpse into his working relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.

“Colonel is the big sell, an evil genius. I had cracked the colonel thing about five years ago and I was just feeling that one of them is getting wildly out of balance with the other in our own culture,” Luhrmann said, adding that his main focus was for the film to be “all about the sell.”

“So I thought this idea of the colonel and Elvis has a resonance to the audience. And that made me pull the trigger. That made me commit,” he revealed.

“Elvis” grossed $285 million worldwide following its release in June, surpassing its budget of $85 million as lead actor Austin Butler stepped into the blue suede shoes, with Luhrmann previously saying Butler was simply “born to play” the role.

But Butler’s onscreen delivery in the 2-hour-39-minute biopic — which has been applauded far and wide, including by immediate relatives of Presley’s — took a lot of sacrifice on his part.

“Austin never broke character,” Luhrmann said. “He was in character 24/7, 7 days a week for two years. I never heard him actually speak as Austin Butler until about three weeks ago.”

“He’s finally shed the shell. He was so devoted to melding his spirit with Elvis’s,” the Australian filmmaker added.

Butler surrendered himself to the role and shut himself off from the rest of the world.

“I basically put the rest of my life on pause for two years,” Butler said at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year where the film premiered. “I just absorbed everything that I possibly could.”

The actor said he was rushed to the hospital in March 2021 where he spent a week bedridden after his body “started shutting down the day after I finished Elvis.”

Butler was diagnosed with a virus likened to appendicitis after immersing himself in the role so much that his body revolted.

The film offers a unique glimpse into the crooner's working relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.
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Luhrmann — who also directed “The Great Gatsby,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” opened up about his bold decision to name Doja Cat’s rap-heavy tune “Vegas” as the main song of the film’s soundtrack.

“It’s like with Gatsby, is it great to have a hit album and a couple of Grammy noms? Sure. But I don’t do it for that reason,” he told The Post. “And the same as Gatsby, I wanted you to feel what jazz felt like.

“In the song, Doja is decoding the words, and it’s really saying this is a really edgy song that a lot of young kids parents wouldn’t want their children to hear and Elvis goes on to perform that song on national television. So that’s the function of it,” Luhrmann explained.

The hit track also features vocals from the late Shonka Dukureh, who played blues singer Big Mama Thornton in the hit film.

Dukureh tragically died in July, just one month after the film was released. She was 44. The musician was found dead inside her bedroom in the Nashville apartment she shared with her two children, police said.

“She was so beautiful and it’s such a sad story,” Luhrmann said, before revealing how she came about to take on the role.

“We were recording a gospel, she had two kids – she really wasn’t well-known at all. And I said, ‘How would you feel about playing the role?’” Dukureh then flew to Australia to record the song.

Luhrmann's film has been praised by Presley's immediate family members, including Priscilla and her daughter, Lisa Marie.
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Luhrmann said Dukureh agreed for her vocals to be included in the hit song, which has been viewed on YouTube alone nearly 14 million times.

“She did fantastic. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to do a layover with Doja, how do you feel if I use the vocal in the Doja song?’ She agreed, it was a blessing.”

“But this story has the saddest ending,” Luhrmann said “She realizes her dream of being a performer, and then shockingly she died only a few months ago. I can’t work out whether it’s the best thing in the world that she at least got to realize the dream and put her love and her gift out there.”