Yola out to right a wrong with her role in Elvis biopic

Singer-songwriter Yola has told RTÉ Entertainment that she was out to right a wrong through her portrayal of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the new biopic Elvis – determined that the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll” should get her due.

The Bristol-born Grammy nominee makes her acting debut as the guitar-playing trailblazer in the Baz Luhrmann-directed film, which celebrates the profound effect African American artists had on Elvis’ sound.

“She invented rock ‘n’ roll and somehow didn’t get a real kind of high five for the job,” Yola told RTÉ Entertainment of Sister Rosetta, who died in 1973 at the age of 58.

Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Elvis

“We owe way too much to her – not just for being the first person to distort the guitar or the first person to bend a string while soloing. All of that distorted shredding that you associate with rock ‘n’ roll was her invention. That is astounding to me.”

When asked whether the role became far more about righting that wrong than showcasing her own talents, Yola replied: “Yes, 1000%. There’s a historical wrong that needs to be righted, especially just the legacy of Black women in music generally.

“I feel like, as a Black woman, it’s a real privilege to be able to just uplift this icon and go, ‘Look, we owe so much to Black America. Like, everything in contemporary music, we owe to them. And so, let’s give Black America their flowers right now‘.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing at Cafe Society Downtown, New York City in December 1940 Photo: Getty Images

“I don’t need this to be about me,” Yola continued.

“The fact that I can do what I’m doing is enough. I recorded it; you know my voice is good, you know that I’m playing, you know that I’m doing all the stuff. That’s there – enjoy that. But just FYI: just please take away that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is why you have everything!”

Yola’s initial involvement with Elvis was for the soundtrack – the offer of the acting role came later.

“She invented rock ‘n’ roll and somehow didn’t get a real kind of high five for the job” Photo: Getty Images

“Do you know what? I never in my wildest dreams thought that this was going to be on the cards,” she laughed.

“I auditioned on a wing and a prayer. I didn’t realise how capable I might have been of getting the job because I did this job for, like, 15 years – that’s ‘singing acting’. But I didn’t realise it was ‘singing acting’! That kind of gave me this entry into the job that I didn’t realise I had.

“I was obviously tracking and Baz was in the session and Austin Butler [who plays Elvis] was in the session as well. We’re tracking all of the songs, I’m putting down my vocals thinking, ‘This is going to be it – but there might be a potential to do something’. So I bring a copy of the ’61 Les Paul Custom – you know, the white guitar with the three gold pickups – just to give them a bit of a visual.

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“He [Baz Luhrmann] looks at it and starts taking photos and screen testing. I’m like, ‘This is a good sign!’ He can see the angles and goes, ‘I think we can make her up to look like her’. I’m a similar hue of brown, I’m a similar build. I was close enough, for sure.”

Now, Yola thinks that, like many musicians before her, she may have caught the acting bug.

“It’s all dependent on people – everything, my sense of home, is dependent on people,” she explained.

“I loved working with Baz. I loved working with the crew; everyone on the team, the cast were just amazing.

“So if I find another wonderful, warm home of people to work with, then, yeah, I reckon I could get into it.”

Elvis is in cinemas now.

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