Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis has all eyes on Austin Butler as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but don’t underestimate Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, giving us a “break” from the male-dominated narrative that's told from the perspective of Tom Hanks’ character Colonel Tom Parker.
“The big question in a lot of the biopics is, who is the man behind closed doors? And I think that Priscilla was a key part in telling that side of the narrative,” DeJonge told Yahoo Canada. “It is a very male-dominated story,...masculine energy heavy story too, and it was definitely a deliberate choice for those scenes to be a lot softer, for those scenes to be more nuanced.”
“I wanted her femininity to sort of feel like a breath in the film, to feel like a break.”
Elvis overall is like being on a high-speed train twisting and turning you through Elvis’ career from the 1950s to the 1970s. The conductor leading you through the story is the musician’s manipulative manager, Parker (Hanks), as he recalls his life with Elvis in A Christmas Carol-esque fashion, nearing death in a Las Vegas hospital room, in an attempt to better his reputation.
It has the electric energy Luhrmann is best known for, but for a character like Priscilla, DeJonge adds a more tender dynamic to the story.
“Her voice is very, very important to how she expresses herself, but also it's a reflection of her femininity and her softness,” DeJonge said. “I listened to a lot of interviews, her tour of Graceland I used to listen to going to sleep.”
“It's really honing in on that and on the day, sort of remembering to throw it away, and then try and keep it nuanced.”
'Bubbling, sexual excitement that was introduced to young women through Elvis'
While Elvis’ career is the focus of the film, it’s also a cultural study of American history, including Elvis’ upbringing in a largely Black neighbourhood in a segregated Memphis, how Black-American artists were the basis of Elvis’ music, and even the societal impacts of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.
It also reflects on the cultural shifts that occurred for women from the 1950s into the 1970s, particularly when we look at Elvis’ fandom.
“It's an incredible opportunity to be able to play such an age range,” Olivia DeJonge said. “The film addresses the '50s and '60s and '70s, the cultural changes that come with that, the bubbling, sexual excitement that was introduced to young women through Elvis.”
'Stepping away...was definitely the best thing that she could have done'
It’s building that sense of obsessive fandom where Elvis really pulls you in, thanks to a performance from Austin Butler that's full of charisma, charm and that inexplicable star power. It makes you completely understand those shrieking fans (mostly women) in the audience, and we can't imagine anyone else portraying Elvis after seeing Butler's intoxicating performance.
That also leads to an important moment in the film when Priscilla and Elvis’ marriage comes to an end in 1973, while Parker keeps warning the audience that while Elvis loves Priscilla, he believed Elvis loved his fans more.
“He was seen as the first of his kind and to be married to that is a kind of an insane thing to be a part of,” Olivia DeJonge said. “So I think that stepping away from that was definitely the best thing that she could have done for herself and for her own growth, and for her own development.”
'They were just a boy and a girl in love'
While several articles and books, including by Priscilla herself, have documented the couple’s relationship and the end of their marriage, in Elvis, it really leans into how much love there was between Priscilla and Elvis, versus the documented infidelity, specifics around the difficulties in their marriage and the fact that the two first connected when Priscilla was just 14, and Elvis was 24.
“I think the larger narrative is that it was two kids in love and the fact that Priscilla has continued to sort of uphold his name and protect his legacy is such a testament to their connection, and such a testament to the time that they shared together, and the love and respect that they saw for one another,” Olivia DeJonge said. “In our story we really wanted to hone in on that.”
“I'll never forget the first time that I saw the photo of them walking out of the divorce proceeding holding hands, they had such a deep love for each other that I think transcended their romantic relationship, and that was important to us. We spoke a lot about having that Bonnie and Clyde sort of aspect to it... At the end of the day, they were just a boy and a girl in love.”
'By the end of it, we were in tears'
During movie screenings, festivals and interviews, Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge, and the rest of the cast and crew of Elvis, have publicly had the support Priscilla herself.
"I'm sitting there watching this movie and going, 'God, I wish he could see this.' It was perfection," Priscilla told Good morning America. "This is a movie that he would have really loved — showing who he was, what he was striving for, what his dreams were."
"I'm so happy that [Olivia DeJonge] was sensitive and that she was caring."
While DeJonge is keeping some specifics about her personal conversations with Priscilla private, the actor did say that it has been an “incredible experience” to spend time with her, particularly during the 75th Cannes Film Festival.
“She's a notoriously very private person and I'm sort of letting her lead on what she wants to say publicly about the film, or about me, but what I can say is that I feel very, very blessed to have met her and...to have her support,” DeJonge said.
“Just being able to sit next to each other at Cannes [was] such an incredible experience… By the end of it, we were in tears and holding each other, and it was incredibly special, incredibly beautiful.”
'He's just sort of mad genius man'
Plenty films have been described as “immersive” but that's truly the goal of Elvis, to surrender to the story and the dazzling cinematic experience of the world Baz Luhrmann crafted.
“He was incredibly dedicated and incredibly detailed,” Olivia DeJonge said. “I think that being around that sort of energy, of complete and total surrender to the project, sort of forces you to do the same.”
“There's a reason that everybody comes back to work with him on his films. He's got an infectious energy and he's just sort of mad genius man who pulls these ideas out of the air and it's contagious to be around.”
Luhrmann also expertly showcases Elvis’ discography, pairing the classic tracks with more contemporary versions, as a ode to his music, particularly Doja Cat’s “Vegas,” a killer track that has been all over TikTok, so you've likely already been playing it on repeat.
At times, Elvis can feel a bit too chaotic and even rushed in the later portions of the film, which makes us curious about what is in the four-hour version Luhrmann told the Radio Times about, but it's certainly an alluring watch for its style, music and cast, including Tom Hanks with prosthetics and a voice that, truly, you will never see anywhere else.
Elvis is in theatres in North America on June 24, 2022