TUPELO, Miss.—Elvis' legacy looms large over Tupelo, but in Australian writer/director Baz Luhrmann's new film, Tupelo's influence on the King of Rock and Roll is front and center.
Luhrmann, who served as writer, director and producer for “Elvis,” visited Tupelo twice to conduct research for the film. During his trips, he stopped at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and chatted with the late Sam Bell, a childhood friend of Elvis, who died in September 2021 at age 85.
In the movie, viewers are offered a sepia-toned look at Elvis' childhood in east Tupelo and the Shake Rag community in 1947, with scenes straight from Bell's mouth to the big screen.
While making the film, Luhrmann—whose previous movies include “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby”—found that most people show little interest in Elvis' life before he walked into Sun Studio to record his first hit. But for Luhrmann, portraying Elvis' childhood fully and accurately was of the utmost importance.
“It was an obsession of mine to find someone who knew him in that time,” Luhrmann told the Daily Journal via a video interview. “Sam tells it in such an open-hearted way. I just found out so much. I put all of it verbatim in the movie.”
In one of the film's opening scenes, Elvis and a group of friends from the predominantly Black Shake Rag neighborhood peer inside a juke joint and see people dancing to “That's All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Elvis' version of the song would be the first single he recorded in 1954 at Sun Studio in Memphis.
“Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw,” Presley said in a 1956 interview.
From the juke joint, Luhrmann's movie takes the boys to a tent revival, where a wide-eyed Elvis ends up in the middle of the worship service. And that's exactly how it went down, Bell recounted to Luhrmann.
Elvis would go down amongst the musicians, getting swept up in the music and moving back and forth.
“Do you think that kind of influenced the movement (he had onstage)?” Luhrmann said he asked Bell, to which Elvis's childhood friend answered, “Absolutely.”
Elvis' friends thought hanging out in gospel tents was uncool, Luhrmann said. Bell remembered going up to grab Elvis and leave, but the preacher told him, “Leave him be. He's with the Spirit.”
Throughout the movie, the scenes of Elvis peeking through the cracks of the juke joint or gyrating at the revival are paralleled with pivotal performances, linking back to his Tupelo roots.
As Luhrmann sees it, a lifelong connection to one's adolescence is a universal experience.
“I think in a way that period as you're transitioning into an adult, what happens to you then, you probably spend the rest of your life working it out,” Luhrmann said.
“It just never goes away,” he added. “It's like being programmed. It's your hard-wiring.”
Luhrmann's first encounter with Elvis' larger-than-life persona came during his formative years. He grew up in the tiny town of Herons Creek in New South Wales, Australia—a town much smaller than Tupelo.
There was only one gas station in the town, which his family owned. Down the road, in the next biggest town, there was a movie theater. And for a while, Luhrmann's dad operated it. The Sunday matinee was often an Elvis movie.
“I was a young kid. He was the coolest guy in the world,” Luhrmann said. “So that was that, and it left an imprint on me.”
Years later, he'd still refer to Elvis as a touchpoint for an understanding of America. But generations born after Elvis' untimely death know little of his life beyond the iconic white jumpsuit.
“(For) a certain age group, he's just kind of relegated to a Halloween costume,” Luhrmann said.
The director's goal isn't to sell Elvis to a new generation, but to show them a cautionary tale about fame in an era when anyone can pick up an iPhone and become famous overnight.
“What he represents about America and the journey he went through, the story, is so valuable and particularly in relation to the Colonel, that this generation will miss out if you don't tell the story,” Luhrmann said.
Telling the story of Elvis and his manager, Col. Tom Parker, was a way for Luhrmann to show the contrast between the freedom of creativity, spirit, soul and truth and the ability to sell and promote hype and energy.
“There's nothing wrong with self-promotion, hype and energy,” Luhrmann said. “But if self-promotion, hype and energy become the dominant force and there's no room for soul, truth, invention, creativity, that's when tragic things occur.”
It's like a Shakespearian play in that way, he feels.
“If Shakespeare were here, I think he would think the musical ‘Hamlet' character in modern-day culture would be Elvis,” Luhrmann said.
Despite the recurring theme of tragedy, the film has more than its fair share of upbeat moments—and music.
The film's 36-song soundtrack includes one track that's sure to interest audiences in and around Northeast Mississippi: “Tupelo Shuffle” features vocals from Swae Lee and production from Diplo, both Tupelo natives. It also includes vocals from the gospel choir seen in the revival tent scene and interpolates Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup performing “That's All Right” in the film.
Luhrmann, known for his involvement in creating the soundtracks for his films, said his goal was to translate the music's original themes and messages for a modern audience.
“(Diplo) and Swae wrote this overlay, which was really about going out on the town,” Luhrmann said of the Tupelo-centric track. “It's a kind of sexy song. Because in truth ‘That's Alright Mama' is a sexy song but it's hard to understand that now.”
Luhrmann said he's thankful for the kind people of Tupelo who looked after his team during their visits to research Elvis' early life.
“I wanted to represent that town and those people with the respect and the accuracy that it deserves,” he said.
The film, which received a 12-minute standing ovation following its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, will open in theaters June 24. Early access fan screening events across the country, including in Tupelo, will take place June 21. Tickets can be purchased at https://elvis.warnerbros.com/earlyaccessfanevent/.