Baz Luhrmann explains why Elvis wasn’t a racist

His world is full of glamorous characters who reach for the stars and look, often unhappily, for love.

“Yes, well, I am a romance addict,” Luhrmann says, sitting in his romantic Gilded Age house in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Square. It is decorated in jewel-toned Victorian-Moroccan splendour by Catherine Martin, his wife and Oscar-winning creative partner. (Otherwise known as “C.M.” , she also designed the luxe green wallpaper.)

“I’m old enough to know I need to be in a heightened romantic state to make a film,” says the director.

Baz, as everyone calls him, may be from Down Under Oz, but his inspiration is the Judy Garland Oz. We conduct our interview with a photo of a crying Garland looking down at us.

A genre unto himself

Over a delectable lunch on elegant china, Luhrmann says he relates to “Elvis’ need to metaphorically go down the yellow brick road, constantly searching, absorbing, taking on influences, cross-fertilising them and making a prism through which he expresses himself in his own way”.

The director is a genre unto himself. You can tell from one frame of his movies that they’re his. He chooses only subjects he’s madly in love with, then he fearlessly dives in – just as he did with Shakespeare, setting the story of Romeo and Juliet in Verona Beach, a fictionalised Miami of sorts, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, pink hair, tabloid TV and a hot-dog stand.

Director Baz Luhrmann at the London premier of Elvis last month. AP

The dazzle-drenched romance of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in La Belle Époque Paris? Mais oui! What’s more thrilling than Ewan McGregor lusting after a languishing Nicole Kidman as she swings through the air and they sing Madonna and Beatles songs?

Then, with Australia, Luhrmann aimed for nothing less than making his country’s version of Gone With the Wind.

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“He’s like a walking opera,” McGregor says. “He lives in a larger way.”

During the first week of last month, Luhrmann was racing to finish mixing and editing on Elvis for its premiere at Cannes, a month before its release on June 24. He was flying from Australia, where the movie was made, to New York to Los Angeles and back to New York, before going to France. And he was also helping direct the Met Gala and walking the red carpet wearing a Prada “Elvis decorative aesthetic” outfit, as he put it, accompanied by Priscilla Presley, on the arm of the film’s Elvis, the 30-year-old Austin Butler.

On the afternoon of our interview, Luhrmann, whippet-thin at 59, wears flared black Celine jeans and Acne western boots, a Prada sweater in a blue that Elvis favoured, a double diamond ring, a copy of Elvis’ “E.P.” ring, a string of pearls and a gold “TCB” necklace with a diamond lightning bolt. It’s a riff on the jewellery worn by Elvis and the Memphis Mafia that signified “Taking Care of Business”.

He shows off a replica of the bejewelled belt with gold chains that Elvis wore on stage in the ’70s. “Elvis was fluid before fluid was invented,” the director says. “He was always incredibly masculine, but he was experimenting with make-up and hair colour in high school, and he liked to mix lace crop tops tied at the waist and pink bolero jackets with pleated box trousers and pink socks.”

‘He makes coffee nervous’

Even when the cameras are not rolling, Luhrmann has Tom Ford syndrome: He can’t stop arranging the world to be as swank as he wants it to be.

When he rented a house in New York’s Greenwich Village opposite Vogue editor Anna Wintour and they shared a garden, he redesigned her Halloween party.

“We used to throw a few skeletons out there and hope for the best,” Wintour says. “Baz and C.M. moved in and just turned it into this incredible Halloween fantasy.

“The level of detail and amazing costumes they brought to it … ”

In 2018, when Luhrmann was a guest at the wedding of Bee Shaffer, Wintour’s daughter, at the family home in Long Island, he took it on himself to play wedding planner.

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“He rehearsed my daughter over and over again for her wedding,” Wintour says. “She said she was probably the bride that slept the best before her wedding because she was so exhausted.”

Even when he was in Australia, he helped Wintour with the Met Gala, calling “to talk about a particular shade of red for the red carpets or whether a blue stripe was right”.

He is “meticulous to the extreme”, Hanks agrees, “with a degree of enthusiasm and energy that is otherworldly. He makes coffee nervous.”

Immersion technique

Luhrmann is so detail-oriented that he even conjures backstories for his extras. The hundreds of extras at the lavish Roaring ’20s parties at Gatsby’s mansion, and the throngs screaming at Elvis’ appearances, had backstories provided by him and his wife.

Luhrmann was able to reproduce Elvis’ bedroom, which is intact at Graceland; it has always been off-limits to Graceland visitors and is now home to a cobweb and spider. The movie shows a fish tank, an electric organ, a white Fender guitar stuck in the shag carpet and two televisions embedded in the ceiling.

As filming for Elvis got under way on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Hanks says that he and Butler nervously huddled. Butler did not consider himself a singer, except for strumming his guitar and singing for his mother and girlfriends.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks as manager Colonel Tom Parker. Warner Bros

“I said to him, ‘Hey, are you as petrified as I am?’” Hanks, 65, recalls. “We had two actors going, actually, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off.’”

As Butler recounts, his screen idol then warned him, “Not many people know what Colonel Parker sounds like, but everybody knows what Elvis sounds like, and you’re going to have people attacking you from every which way.”

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Butler chuckles at the memory. “So I go, ‘Oh, thanks, Tom.’ And then I gave him a big hug.”

Butler was an actor on teen shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. His first big movie role was playing Tex Watson, a Manson family member, in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

He confesses that his initial attempts to sing like Elvis made him feel like a kid wearing his father’s suit. But, he said, “When I felt nerves, I didn’t go, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this.’ I thought, ‘This is what Elvis felt.’”

The tall, lanky Butler (who divided his time at the Met Gala between Priscilla Presley and his girlfriend, model Kaia Gerber) borrowed his director’s immersion technique.

“Before Austin got the role, when I met him for a workshop in this building three and a half years ago, he had this Southern accent,” Luhrmann says. “It wasn’t until four weeks later, someone said, ‘He’s actually from Anaheim [in California].’”

Luhrmann has a record label, House of Iona, at RCA, where Elvis had his contract. So he had access to hundreds of recordings of the young Elvis. But they weren’t usable because of their format.

“I thought, ‘Do I get an impersonator and then mime it?’” he recalls. He asked Butler to try some songs.

“Day 1, he can almost sing like Elvis,” Luhrmann says. He ended up using Butler’s voice, also a throaty baritone, for the young Elvis songs, and Elvis’ voice for the later iconic moments.

The carny who made the star

Luhrmann became obsessed with the partnership of Colonel Parker and Elvis, easily the most fascinating Svengali-star relationship in entertainment history. (If you don’t count Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, who ran around declaring, “I am Marlene”.)

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“I believe the word ‘sociopath’ will come into the dialogue when the issue of the colonel comes up,” Luhrmann says. “Sociopaths can be incredibly entertaining and amazingly enigmatic.”

Was Parker – a native of Holland, using a fake name and honorary military title and pretending to be a good old boy from West Virginia – a captivating snake-oil salesman? Or was he something much darker: a leech, a thief, maybe even a murderer on the lam?

Was Elvis strapped for money – mortgaging Graceland to make his payroll – and increasingly bored and dependent on drugs because the colonel, in the US illegally with no passport, squelched lucrative foreign tours?

Did the old carny barker play out a shattering real-life version of Nightmare Alley, his favourite movie, in which he turned the most successful solo recording artist of all time into the geek? Did the carny and animal trainer, whose favourite routine was a chicken hopping to music on a hidden hot plate, turn Elvis into his own dancing chicken?

It’s telling that Parker manufactured both “I love Elvis” buttons and “I hate Elvis” buttons, wanting a stake in both sides of the market.

“After all, what’s hate worth if it’s free?” Luhrmann says sardonically.

Colonel Tom Parker was sued for mismanaging Elvis’ affairs. 

After Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, became what the actor calls “the celebrity canaries in the coal mine” by getting COVID-19 in March 2020, filming on Elvis was delayed for six months. During the hiatus, Priscilla Presley ran into Wilson in Los Angeles and suggested a dinner. Presley and Jerry Schilling, a member of the Memphis Mafia, went to the home of Hanks and Wilson, and they had a confab about the colonel.

Despite the famous legal battle between Elvis’ heirs and Parker – he was sued for massive fraud and mismanaging Elvis’ business interests; the parties settled out of court – Priscilla Presley spoke highly of the manager, saying she wished he were still alive. That led to Luhrmann and Hanks reworking the colonel into “less of a one-dimensional bad guy”, as the director put it.

“I was anticipating hearing horror stories about this venal, cheap crook,” Hanks says. “Just the opposite. Both Priscilla and Jerry said he was a lovely man.”

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As to the outrageous deal that gave Parker half of Elvis’ income, Priscilla Presley told Hanks that Elvis didn’t care about the 50 per cent and was glad that the colonel was handling the business side.

“There was an acumen and brilliance to Colonel Tom Parker that is belied by the fact that he was a cheap carny,” says Hanks, who had to log five hours a day in make-up getting mountainous, mottled and saggy.

“Look, Elvis was Picasso,” the actor says. “He was a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime artist. The colonel understood that. Colonel Tom Parker would have been nothing without Elvis, and Elvis would not have been Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker.”

As Elvis spiralled into drug addiction, the colonel spiralled into gambling addiction. He needed Elvis to slave away in Vegas and on gruelling road tours so the colonel could pay his gambling debts.

Elvis Presley strolls the grounds of his Graceland estate, 1957. Michael Ochs
© EPE. Graceland

In one chilling scene in the movie, based on fact, Elvis is in a drug haze with people dunking his face in ice water backstage at Vegas when the colonel comes up and tells a “Dr Feelgood” to get the singer onstage, no matter what they have to do.

“He did not want word to get out that the greatest entertainer in the world could not get up on stage,” Hanks says.

“He didn’t want to give back the money or deal with the legal ramifications. It ends up being, is that looking out for the legacy of his client or is that slowly poisoning the guy?”

Elvis died in 1977, at 42, after a heart attack. His health had been worn down by the grind of his career – and almost certainly by the 19,000 pills that Dr George Nichopoulos, his Memphis Dr Feelgood, prescribed to him, according to The Colonel by Alanna Nash. (Not counting what he got from other star-struck doctors.)

Parker did not miss a beat. He refused to be a pallbearer, wore a Hawaiian shirt to the funeral and said to Elvis’ father, Vernon, that they needed to start printing a lot more records. “Elvis didn’t die. The body did,” the colonel famously said.

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Searching for the truth

When Luhrmann reached out to Lisa Marie Presley and her actress daughter Riley Keough early on, he says, Keough told him that she was concerned that her grandfather had been maligned on race.

After Chuck D of Public Enemy called Elvis “a straight-out racist” in the hit 1989 song Fight the Power, a generation of kids believed it. Then in 2020, the rapper did an interview in which he said he had no specific evidence of racism; he simply made Elvis “the fall guy” because Elvis was crowned the King for a style that black singers had originated.

Luhrmann set up an office in the back of Graceland and, visiting over three years, did prodigious research with his team. He followed Elvis from his birth in a shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, to a period when his father went to jail and he and his mother ended up in one of the few white-designated houses in the black community there.

The director interviewed Sam Bell, a childhood friend of E.P., as they called him, about their trips to juke joints and Pentecostal tents, where the famous possessed twitching of Elvis the Pelvis began.

Elvis, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, 1970. Frank Carroll/Sygma

“Conservatives, this organisation of governors, freaked out because they saw that movement as aligned to the African American movement,” Luhrmann says. “That’s why they were so terrified of its effect on young people. It was jumping the race line, basically.” In the film, Luhrmann uses real headlines about Elvis, like “A white boy with black hips”.

“Many in the black community loved him,” Luhrmann says. “They thought he was brave for performing their music. He didn’t sit down connivingly and go, ‘I’m going to take black music and make money out of it.’”

A story circulated at the start of Elvis’ career that he had made a racist crack, either in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow’s show. But those who looked into it said that Elvis had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow’s program.

In 1957, Elvis told a reporter from Jet, “I never said anything like that, and people who know me know that I wouldn’t have said it.” He reiterated his debt to black musicians for rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, saying: “Let’s face it, I can’t sing like Fats Domino can.”

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Luhrmann believes the story about a racist remark was made up by anti-Elvis conservatives who wanted to bring him down. He engaged Nelson George, a black music historian who had been critical of Elvis, to seek the truth.

“He didn’t say that,” George says. “He was timid at times when the moment required boldness. But he wasn’t ill-willed toward black people.”

The director learnt that Elvis was friends with many black artists. He says that James Brown dedicated a song to his “Brother, Elvis”, and was present at Elvis’ funeral, and that in the period when Elvis first got successful, he had a friendship with B.B. King and was often the only white face at Club Handy, a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis where many black artists performed.

But the movie makes it clear that this was one more area in which Elvis was cowed by the colonel, who did not want his star involved in the civil rights movement, feeling it was bad for business.

The director believes that the colonel ushered Elvis into the army, thinking, “We’ll send him away until this rock ‘n’ roll thing cools down. He’s too much in with this black culture.” The colonel stifled Elvis’ desire to go for prestigious movies such as West Side Story, and pushed him to make white-bread girls-in-paradise pop musicals that got worse and worse.

Luhrmann is bracing for an intense reaction on everything from his take on Elvis and race to his portrayal of the star’s romance with the 14-year-old Priscilla.

“But this is not someone hanging around schoolyards, like some famous people we know, serially picking up 14-year-olds,” he said. “They do fall in love and have a child, and they did consummate the marriage only when they were married. That is true.”

So, I wonder, is Elvis ever leaving the building?

“Elvis is still in our lives, and he will continue to be,” the director replies as he speeds off to his next big adventure.

Elvis will screen as part of the Sydney Film Festival on June 15 and 17 and opens in cinemas on June 23.

This story originally appeared in The New York Times.

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