Elvis: Why Baz Luhrmann Uses So Much Modern Music

Elvis’ music is among the most famous in the world which is why it is so surprising that Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis movie uses so much modern music to tell his story. The film has been met with critical and viewer praise, earning a 12-minute standing ovation at Cannes this year and knocking Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick from its reign at number one at the summer box office. However, many have questioned Luhrmann’s use of today’s music and contemporary artists in the film.

The Elvis movie follows Presley through his whole life, from his birth in 1935 until his death in 1977. The story chronicles his rise to fame with the release of his first single “That’s Alright” in 1954 followed by a cultural fever that would follow him throughout his career up until his tragic death. The story is not unlike other biopics that have been released in recent years like the story of Queen’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John’s story in Rocketman (saving that the fantastic Elton John is still alive). However, Luhrmann sets himself apart with the new Elvis movie because, unlike other biopics which rely on the original artist’s music, Luhrmann’s Elvis is infused with modern artists from nearly every genre.


Related: Were Elvis & B.B. King Really Friends? The True Story Is Complicated

The film’s success has led to a hot debate about whether or not Luhrmann should have taken the traditional biopic path and deferred to Elvis’ extensive musical catalog. However, the film’s magnetism is largely born of Luhrmann’s gamble. In fact, two of the new Elvis movie’s most important scenes—Elvis’ arrest and his scene on Beale Street—were created using the talents of modern blues artist Gary Clark Jr. and rapper Kanye West. Modern blues artist, Gary Clark Jr. plays one of Elvis’ biggest inspirations, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. And while Crudup was important to Elvis’ career (he recorded what would become Elvis’ first hit “That’s Alright” in 1946), Clark Jr.’s role behind the scenes is equally interesting. In the Elvis movie, Austin Butler sings Elvis’ “Trouble,” a song that Elvis performed in such a provocative way that it led to his arrest. However, the style of the original music seems so docile today that it was hard to translate the emotion the song would have created at the time. That is why audiences hear Clark Jr. shredding on his guitar in the Elvis movie’s version—it helps create the fever and thrill that Elvis’ performance would have inspired live.

How Elvis Became A Punk and Kanye West Brought Memphis to Life

Austin Butler performing "Trouble" in Elvis

Luhrmann also ran into trouble when trying to convey the electricity of Memphis’ Beale Street in the Elvis movie. The scene shows Butler’s Elvis escape the stale and commercially-saturated world built by Elvis’ tyrannical manager Colonel Tom Parker for the authentic and enlivened world of Beale Street. During filming, however, the scene was lacking life. To fix it, Luhrmann blasted Kanye West’s song “Black Skinhead” and watched the scene burst to life, once again using today’s music to create the emotion of Elvis’ world.

Considering these examples, it stands to reason that the new Elvis movie is only made better by Luhrmann’s musical risk-taking. It is through the artists of today that Luhrmann is able to renew the experience that Elvis’ fans would have experienced when Elvis was a modern musician. Furthermore, Luhrmann’s choice does not detract from the legend of Elvis but furthers it by showing the importance of his musical influence throughout all musical genres still today.