‘Elvis’ Director Baz Luhrmann Says He Wasn’t Out to Make Elvis ‘a Great Person’

Making Elvis Presley “a great person” wasn’t director Baz Luhrmann’s goal when creating his latest film. Released June 24, Luhrmann’s Elvis knocked Top Gun: Maverick from its number-one spot at the box office. The biopic also received the longest standing ovation at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this year. Most viewers, including Elvis’ ex-wife Priscilla and daughter Lisa Marie, have sung the film’s praises, saying the director fully and finally succeeded in capturing the icon. However, some critics claim Elvis is no hero.

‘Everyone has their Elvis,’ Baz Luhrmann says

Baz Luhrmann Elvis movie

Baz Luhrmann Elvis movie

Baz Luhrmann on June 17, 2022, in Toronto | Jeremy Chan/Getty Images

In Baz Luhrmann’s movie, Elvis is many things: a victim of Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), an adoring but absentee husband and father, a gifted performer and musician, and a civil rights advocate. Luhrmann made Elvis a flawed hero, an idea detractors rebut. 

Helen Kalowole argues in a 2002 article in The Guardian that Elvis appropriated the songs of Black artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry and got rich and famous off others’ work. In Public Enemy’s 1989 song “Fight the Power,” rapper Chuck D declares Elvis a racist. Other observers say Elvis should have done more for civil rights by marching and protesting in the streets.

However, Luhrmann seems undeterred.

“I’m not here to tell the world that Elvis is a great person,” the director explains to the AP. “I’ll tell you what he is for me … [but] everyone has their Elvis.” 

Is Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ historically accurate?

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Elvis follows the icon from birth to death in two and a half hours — and the experience is sensational. The director spent particular time and effort establishing Elvis’ musical roots in the Black, low-income neighborhood where his family lived when he was young. 

Historically, Elvis was born and raised until the age of 13 in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. Pat Nichols, a neighbor in Tupelo, told Rolling Stone in 1977: “Yes, sir, we all grew up here in the ghetto together — and it was a ghetto then, too. Used to be a lot of shacks like this one, but they tore them down. Before they got fancy and started calling this area East Heights, they used to call it East Tupelo, and it was the meanest part of town.”

Regarding Elvis’ involvement in the church, the singer once said, “We used to go to these religious singin’s all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to them. Then there was the preachers, and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ ever’ which way … I guess I learned from them,” RollingStone reported.

Furthermore, as Elvis portrays, Presley often ran in the same circles as Black musicians of the era, including legendary blues artist B.B. King. Speaking with Jack Dennis of the San Antonio Examiner in 2016, King said, “Let me tell you the definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism … With Elvis, there was not a single drop of racism in that man. And when I say that, believe me, I should know” (via Elvis Australia).

The director’s movies and filmmaking style

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Known for his flashy cinematic style, Baz Luhrmann has much in common with Elvis in that he’s primarily known for his adaptations.

Luhrmann’s first big hit was his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which saw the 16th-century play updated to a gun-blazing, music-blasting gang drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Then came Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Some might not be aware it’s a loose adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Next was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel, The Great Gatsby, which Luhrmann adapted into a 2013 movie starring DiCaprio. 

In his work, the director tells the AP he feels his job is “to take things that are considered either boring or old-fashioned or not relevant and shake off the rust and recode them … not to change them, just to retranslate them so their value is once again present.” Considering that, one should see Luhrmann’s Elvis as another of the director’s remarkable adaptations rather than a documentary investigating the singer’s role as a hero or thief. 

Interestingly, the renewed argument about Elvis’ impact further proves his cultural significance currently and historically. And though he might not be a hero to all, Presley clearly and distinctly changed the world — a point perfectly articulated in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. 

RELATED: ‘Elvis’ Star Olivia DeJonge Shares How She Portrayed Priscilla Presley Without Speaking to the Real-Life Woman Herself

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