Elvis Presley was many things: cultural icon, rebel, musician, movie star. Ironically, that last one gets short shrift in Baz Luhrmann's new take on the King, Elvis. There's a quick montage of Presley's film years, including star Austin Butler warbling "Viva Las Vegas," but by and large, we skip all the Hollywood hullabaloo.
Luhrmann says that was intentional because he felt there wasn't much to say about that period of Presley's career. He initially intended to include more of it, and they shot footage of Butler in a white suit singing "Bossa Nova Baby" from 1963's Fun in Acapulco.
"But when you get into a two-and-a-half-hour version, not only do you shoot stuff you leave behind, you have to go, 'Where am I going to slim down?'" Luhrmann tells EW. "I realized that what really mattered in the plot was that the Colonel says, 'Go away to the Army. Just be an ordinary Joe. Come back, and I promise you, you'll be a serious actor.' But when he comes back, [the public] only wants to see him in movies where he sings."
Luhrmann continues, "They're on a river of money and then the world changes. You see how quickly I just told you that? I told you in three sentences. That's all that happens. As much as we might want to indulge in it, we have to jump certain bits and get to the drama."
Presley's Hollywood career is prolific (he made 31 films), but by and large, it's an amalgamation of musical trifles trumped up to help the rock star sell more records. "There was an Elvis movie on TV about every six weeks, and he was either playing a singer who also raced cars or a race-car driver who also sang," quips Tom Hanks, who plays Colonel Tom Parker. "It seems like there was an awful lot of movies where he was that."
That's not for Presley's lack of trying — he circled the role of Tony in West Side Story and was extremely eager to take on the part ultimately played by Kris Kristofferson in 1976's A Star Is Born.
Still, Luhrmann thinks a story focusing on Presley's Hollywood career would need to be a different project entirely. "I'm not doing the movie of Elvis in Hollywood," he concludes. "And I'm not doing Elvis-and-the-subplot biopic. I'm doing the story of America through Elvis and the Colonel."
For those who may want to see more of Elvis onscreen during that stage of his career, here's a highly curated list of the five movies you should start with (we haven't included any concert specials or documentaries, just his studio output).
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Elvis Presley in 'Jailhouse Rock.'
His third film, Jailhouse Rock, was the first movie to truly showcase Presley's on-screen star potential. He plays Vince Everett, a construction worker who learns to play guitar while in jail for manslaughter and then becomes a music sensation after he is released. Songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the score, producing instant hits for Presley, notably the title track.
Many consider Elvis's performance of "Jailhouse Rock," wearing a striped shirt and dancing in a stylized cell block, to be his greatest moment on screen. It's certainly one of his most recognizable, probably because Presley was encouraged to implement his own choreography when he was dissatisfied with the direction he was given. Presley's Vince is not particularly likable — he betrays the ones who love him, for money and fame — but he does learn his lesson, showcasing Presley's ability to play a bad boy with a good heart.
King Creole (1958)
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Elvis Presley in 'King Creole.'
Both Luhrmann and Butler name this as their No. 1 Presley film, and Elvis himself cited Danny Fisher as his favorite role. Unlike most of the baubles that would define Presley's Hollywood career, King Creole is a dark black-and-white drama encased in gritty film noir packaging as conceived by prolific Warner Bros. director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).
Danny (Presley), a 19-year-old kid, gets mixed up with street gangs and women while trying to provide for his family. In a startling performance of "Trouble," Presley showcases his ability to marry his vocal chops to dramatic acting abilities. Presley dreamed of becoming a serious actor, and this film is the clearest indication of what might have been. In fact, James Dean, Presley's idol, was originally slated to star in this until his untimely death. Those brooding, meatier roles were the ones Presley was hungry for, but King Creole is the only real chance he ever got to play them.
Blue Hawaii (1961)
Paramount Pictures/Getty Elvis Presley in 'Blue Hawaii.'
The first (and best) of three Presley films to be shot in Hawaii, Blue Hawaii can seen as hokey and dated, but it's also a heck of a good time. Mirroring his own life, Presley stars as Chadwick "Chad" Gates, a G.I. returning home from the Army to Hawaii where he's eager to get back to his life of surf, sand, and girls. He faces pressure from his mother (a 36-year-old Angela Lansbury, only 10 years Presley's senior) to go into the family business managing a fruit company. But he's more interested in working as a tour guide with his girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman). Less a movie with an intriguing plot than a travelogue (they shot in some of Oahu and Kauai's most picturesque locales), Blue Hawaii does feature Presley crooning some of his most beloved songs, including the title track and "Can't Help Falling In Love."
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Elvis Presley in 'Viva Las Vegas.'
Many consider Viva Las Vegas the summation of what makes an essential Elvis film: a beautiful costar (Ann-Margret), a racing subplot, and a memorable soundtrack epitomized by the title track, a number which was filmed in one long continuous take. Elvis is driver "Lucky" Jackson, whose flirtatious encounter with swimming instructor Rusty (Ann-Margret) leaves him wanting to earn money to replace his car's engine. Presley's chemistry with Ann-Margret is off the charts (she has called him her "soulmate," and the two reportedly had an on-set affair), and her fiery persona and motorcycle tricks make her the only leading lady to truly match his energy. Presley became nearly synonymous with Vegas, thanks to his late-career run at the International Hotel, but this was the movie to kickstart the association.
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Barbara Stanwyck and Elvis Presley on the set of 'Roustabout.'
After the May 1964 success of Viva Las Vegas, Presley's films began to decline in quality, regurgitating the same plots and flimsy romances just to give him a platform to sing. But Roustabout, released later that fall, continues the good vibes just a little longer, putting Elvis on a motorcycle and letting him share screen time with the legendary Barbara Stanwyck. Reflecting some of the imagery of Luhrmann's new Elvis, this film features the star as musician Charlie Rogers, who becomes an attraction at a traveling carnival. Stanwyck is Maggie, the owner of the fair, to whom Charlie's loyalty is tested when a romantic clash sends him to a rival touring gig. Roustabout marked Presley's final No. 1 soundtrack album of his career.