Baz Luhrmann Addresses Race in Elvis, Compares Presley to Eminem

After the premiere of “Elvis” at Cannes this week, writer-director Luhrmann compared Elvis Presley to rapper Eminem and their respective musical influences from growing up in Black communities. Presley was raised by his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers III, is from Detroit, Michigan.

“The most important thing in this film is to show that a young kid, just like Eminem, grew up in a Black community, their personalities are formed by what they absorb,” Luhrmann said during the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “So the music that came out of Elvis was music that he absorbed and from his friendships with emerging Black musicians who weren’t famous like B.B. King.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays King in the film, led by Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks portraying manager Colonel Tom Parker. Olivia DeJonge plays Priscilla Presley, Kodi Smit-McPhee is country legend Jimmie Rodgers, Alton Mason is Little Richard, and Yola Quartey stars as Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

While Butler sings Presley’s songs for the film, Eminem is also featured on the soundtrack, as well as Tame Impala, Stevie Nicks, Doja Cat, Swa Lee, and Diplo. The film will be released in theaters on June 24.

Prior to filming, Luhrmann moved to Memphis to experience where Presley grew up.

“Elvis and his mom were so poor, dirt poor, that they ended up in one of the few designated houses for white people in a Black community,” Luhrmann said. “Elvis had to walk through the Black community every day to get to school in the white community.”

The “Elvis” research team also tracked down Presley’s former neighbor named Sam Bell, who opened up about his friendship with the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

“They were a gang, and they ran off to juke joints, and they went to pentecostal tents,” the “Great Gatsby” director continued. “And see, this is the thing about young people. They absorb all kinds of things, especially someone with a big hole in their heart like Elvis, who had conditional love from his mother and was always searching and seeking and absorbing.”

According to Luhrmann, Presley “mixed” Black music with a country twang and gospel affectations. The “Moulin Rouge!” filmmaker credited the pre-production team behind “Elvis” for the thorough process.

“Homework, research, depth of research. I want to make an acknowledgment to my team. I have a research team, and we lived there. We lived in Memphis. I had a space at Graceland,” Luhrmann said. “You see, we do our homework, so I know these things to be true. His love of gospel. He said, ‘That’s the music I love.’”

Luhrmann added that Elvis “went out of his way to say, ‘I didn’t invent Rock and Roll, I just put my own spin on it.’ He said, ‘Don’t call me the King, I’m not the king.’”

IndieWire’s David Ehlrich addressed the “reveal” that Presley is white after record label executives hear his sound for the first time in his review of the film.

“That won’t be the last time Luhrmann acknowledges his subject’s oft-discussed role in the history of American race relations — just wait until the feverish sequence where Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is framed as something that personally happened to Elvis Presley, and made him feel very sad — but it’s safe to assume that ‘Elvis’ is less interested in the cultural etymology of Presley’s music than it is in the way that stiff ribbons of jet-black hair falls across Austin Butler’s face every time he sweet talks into a microphone,” Ehlrich penned.

Presley’s real-life descendants have praised the film, with daughter Lisa Marie Presley saying that Butler deserves an Oscar for his performance as the late rocker.

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