‘Elvis’ and Austin Butler feel the temperature rising

Jake Coyle
The Associated Press

“Elvis” opens Thursday at Queensgate Movies 13, Regal West Manchester and Hanover Movies 16.

On the day of Austin Butler’s final screen test for “Elvis,” director Baz Luhrmann threw everything at him.

Butler had spent five months building up to that moment, workshopping the role with Luhrmann, doing hair and make-up tests, rehearsing the songs. Against the odds, Butler had emerged as the unlikely favorite to land the role over more established names like Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort. But it wasn’t official yet.

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And during the screen test, Luhrmann flipped the script. Some of the scenes Butler had prepped went out the window. In others, Luhrmann fed him lines from behind the camera. The one minute of “Suspicious Minds” that Butler was to perform in a Presley jumpsuit stretched to six.

“I got home and I really thought: ‘I don’t think I got that. I felt like my hands were tied behind my back,’” Butler said in a recent interview.

A week later in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old actor’s phone rang. Luhrmann was calling from Australia.

“I look at the phone and go, ‘OK, this is the moment,’” says Butler. “I pick up the phone and he was very dramatic and downcast. He goes, ‘Austin, I just wanted to be the first one to call you and say … Are you ready to fly, Mr. Presley?’”

Austin Butler stars in “Elvis.” The movie opens Thursday at Queensgate Movies 13, Regal West Manchester and Hanover Movies 16.

When “Elvis” opens in theaters this week, it will resurrect one of the most iconic figures in American music in the biggest, most bedazzled film to ever try to capture the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And it will propel Butler, an Orange County, California, native best known to this point for playing Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” onto a far bigger stage.

“It all feels sort of like this wonderful dream,” Butler said the morning after the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. “I have to take moments to take a deep breath and say, ‘This is real life.’”

What’s real and what’s fake in the exaggerated land of the much-imitated Elvis hasn’t always been easy to discern. “Elvis,” which Luhrmann co-scripted, doesn’t take a standard biopic view of Presley but tells his story through Presley’s infamous manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a former carnival barker who guided Presley to stardom but exploited and manipulated him until Presley’s death in 1977. Parker narrates the tale, adding a dimension about the nature of show business and performance.

“Baz in the very first meeting said, ’Look, this is a story about two people. There would have never been an Elvis without a Col. Tom Parker, and, in his own mind, there would have never been a Col. Tom Parker without Elvis,” says Hanks. “As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be new turf, and worthy of the Baz-maximalist-confetti-strewn style of moviemaking.’”

And, like “The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge,” “Elvis” is indeed an extravagant, maximalist Baz-styled blow-out. As you’d expect, it breezes through pivotal moments in the Mississippi-born Memphis singer’s life and a jukebox of songs. But “Elvis” also offers a more youthful, rebellious portrait of Presley as a product of Black gospel music, a hip-shaking sex symbol in eyeliner and a progressive-minded nonconformist whose closely controlled career reflected cultural battles of then and now. Butler’s is an electric Elvis, not campy nostalgia act, with more Bowie in him than you might expect.

“I’m not here to tell the world that Elvis is a great person. I’ll tell you what he is for me,” says Luhrmann. “Everyone has their Elvis.”