Why artists like Doja Cat and Kanye West were essential to the Elvis soundtrack

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·5 min read
Why artists like Doja Cat and Kanye West were essential to the Elvis soundtrack
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No matter who or what the subject of a Baz Luhrmann film is, there's always one universal truth — the soundtrack will be epic. Luhrmann, who solidified himself as a distinctive auteur with 1996's Romeo + Juliet and 2001's Moulin Rouge!, works from a space of musicality, creating an aural tapestry for his works. Anyone who grew up on the soundtracks to those two breakout films knows this innately.

"Baz has music at the core of his soul," says Austin Butler, who portrays Elvis Presley in Luhrmann's Elvis, his first feature in nearly a decade. "He's a brilliant orchestrator of music, and I'm excited about all the ways in which he's using that to weave through the soundtrack and appeal to an audience of all ages."

When it was first announced that Luhrmann was going to take on the subject of Elvis, it may have been assumed he'd rely solely on Presley's hundreds of recordings. But Luhrmann never does what's expected.

Instead, the soundtrack boasts a new single from Doja Cat, "Vegas," which samples Presley's recording of "Hound Dog," as well as several other tracks from contemporary artists, including Eminem with CeeLo GreenKacey MusgravesJack White, and Stevie Nicks.

Why did Luhrmann infuse the film with modern artists and hip-hop beats? Per the director, it was a way of illustrating the radical impact of Presley's sound on audiences, a technique he honed on 2013's The Great Gatsby.

"When I went to do Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote African-American street music, jazz numbers, into the novel," the director explains. "He coined the term Jazz Age. Jay-Z and I realized that the translation of jazz must be hip-hop. We were translating not only what it was, but what it felt like."

To audiences of today, Elvis Presley might seem like a relic of a bygone era: a guy with an oft-imitated voice, flashy jumpsuits, and a cadre of hokey movies to his credit. But what Luhrmann and Butler wanted audiences to appreciate was just how dangerous Presley seemed when he first rose to fame.

Elvis
Elvis

Warner Bros. Pictures Austin Butler in Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis.'

"How do you get people to feel what it felt like at that time, rather than just creating a carbon copy?" asks Butler. "How are young people going to understand what it felt like when Elvis was first performing? A lot of people don't understand the punk Elvis, the vibrant youth rebel he was in the '50s. People hadn't seen something like this on stage, especially on television. It started to tear off the chains of society at that time. We wanted to have the audience feel that."

This led Luhrmann to recruit the likes of Gary Clark Jr. and Tame Impala to infuse the sounds of Elvis with the sounds of today. "The music overlay reflects the past, the present, and the future," says Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard. "You get Doja Cat, you hear some rap, you hear some trap, and then you go all the way to the 1950s with B.B. King and Little Richard and Rosetta Tharpe. That made it new, but also paid homage to where it all originated from."

Luhrmann's cast expresses awe for the ways in which he conceived the soundtrack from the start, using it to enliven moments on set. "You've got to be so about music to see everything through that art," says Yola, who portrays Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She describes Luhrmann's use of music as akin to being "in a mind palace."

This ethos and reliance on music flowed through the set during production. Butler describes one sequence in which Presley performs "Trouble" in a fashion that is so provocative, it leads to his arrest. The moment plays like punk. "That one I got to basically create from scratch," the actor recalls. "Because we didn't have any actual footage of that concert. I could take images and go, 'Okay, here he is on the floor, here he is grabbing onto the RCA dog, here he is on his knees looking at a girl in the face.' With the help of Baz, we could create this performance that was Elvis the rebel."

Elvis
Elvis

Warner Bros. Pictures

"It's electrifying an audience for the first time when he's starting to move," adds Luhrmann. "Yes, it's exciting, but the style of the music makes it very hard for you to know what it felt like in context. It felt like they were watching a punk-rock performance. That's how shocking it was. That's why, all of a sudden, Gary Clark Jr. starts shredding his guitar really heavily because you go, 'Wow, it must have been electric.'"

Elsewhere, Luhrmann describes another moment on set where the music made the sequence work. They were filming a night scene set on Memphis's Beale Street where Elvis goes to visit B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and something was not clicking. So he asked one of his crew to blast Kanye West's "Black Skinhead" across the set.

"So we turn it up and immediately, everyone's [moving], and it was so real that I just let the cameras roll," says Luhrmann. "What you see in the movie is the live cameras just rolling because the music put a ring around everyone and made them go, 'This is Saturday night on Beale Street.' It feels like 'Black Skinhead' by Kanye West."

Harrison, who portrays B.B. King, remembers that moment making him come alive. "I didn't know how much I grew up on movies until I was like, 'Ah, now I feel like I'm in a movie. Now I can actually act,'" he laughs. "Because otherwise, I was just like, 'Well this is stale.' But Baz put that [song] on, and I was like, 'Alright Elvis, E.P., my man.'"

Still, Luhrmann didn't want to overwhelm Presley's music and legacy. There are still plenty of moments where we hear the unfiltered Elvis, both as performed by Butler and hybrid versions of songs that blend Butler's voice with Presley's recordings.

As Luhrmann puts it, "I do it sparingly at times when I think a door needs to be opened to a younger audience so they can understand that — to quote Elvis in the movie — 'This ain't no nostalgia show.'"

Elvis hits theaters June 24.

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