Pink suits and manbags: Elvis rips up stereotypes in Baz Luhrmann biopic

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Austin Butler and Olivia DeJonge in Elvis.

The hottest pop heart-throb wears sugar pink suits and lace blouses, and whips teenage crowds into delirium with his beestung pout and perfectly coiffed quiff. Forty five years after his death, he is poised for a blockbuster summer. Step aside, Harry Styles – Elvis is back in the building.

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An opulent Baz Luhrmann-directed biopic, which arrives in cinemas later this month, portrays the king of rock’n’roll as an audaciously counter-cultural artist whose music and image challenge the prejudices and stereotypes of the world around him.

“I try and make movies to deal with what’s going on now,” the director said at a screening hosted by GQ magazine in London this week. Luhrmann and his wife and collaborator, the costume designer Catherine Martin, have created a delicate, feminine on-screen portrait of the teenage Elvis. He wears lace blouses, and carries his cassette tapes in a glossy leather manbag. Heavy-lidded and pouting under a sailor cap, he swivels his hips on stage with an energy that owes as much to Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera as to traditional rock’n’roll. In Luhrmann’s luscious retelling of the mythology the title role, played by 30-year-old American actor Austin Butler, is cast as a beautiful innocent ensnared by the wiles of manager Colonel Tom Parker, played against type by Tom Hanks.

The film explores how Elvis’s upbringing in a largely Black neighbourhood in segregated Memphis shaped his music and his style. At the GQ screening the British singer Yola, who plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe – the queer, Black “godmother of rock’n’roll” revered by Lizzo as a hero – recalled Luhrmann saying: “We need to put the story into context, to show that [Elvis] came from a Black world.” The young star is shown mesmerised by gospel in a church service and singing with BB King in the blues venue Club Handy on Beale Street, Memphis. Newspaper headlines shown on screen – “Elvis the Pelvis belongs in the Jungle”, “The White Boy with Black Hips” – testify to the prejudice and hostility with which the Black roots of his hits were met by the US establishment. Luhrmann told GQ that Elvis was “at the centre of culture, for the good, the bad and the ugly. And you can’t talk about America in that period without talking about race”.

Austin Butler and Olivia DeJonge in Elvis. Photograph: Warner Brothers

Fashion in Elvis is a three-way collaboration between Luhrmann, Martin and the designer Miuccia Prada, who has created clothes for Luhrmann’s films for 30 years and who dressed the entire cast for the recent Met Gala in New York. Luhrmann recently told Vogue that conversation with Prada tended to diverge from clothing, and “goes from high to low, from political to … kind of trash”. In the film, some looks rework outfits which Elvis and other characters wore in real life, while others take artistic licence from the Prada and Miu Miu archives.

Luhrmann spoke at this week’s screening of his love for “the colour and the dazzle, but also the darkness” of popular culture, a perspective he shares with Prada, who fuses subcultural currents with high-gloss glamour on her catwalks. At the same event, Martin described costume design as “a process of supporting the storytelling and characterisation … in ballroom dancing they say that the woman is the flower and the man is the vase. In a film, I am the vase and Baz and the actors are the flowers.”

The dramatic beats of the story are echoed in the evolution of Elvis’s wardrobe. The ethereal, fairytale-princess palette of teenage Elvis is replaced by boxy olive greens for his military posting, and then by lurid sunset yellows and oranges for an era of cheesy Hollywood films. The decadence of his later years is at first all excitement and allure, with a still-beautiful Elvis shown in a sleek, slim-hipped, plum-coloured Prada suit, with a high Napoleonic collar which rises up to frame sharp cheekbones. The descent into drug-addled Vegas sleaze is played out in a world of capes and jumpsuits, huge gold pinkie rings and babydoll nylon nighties, neon lights and remote-control curtains.

But the film gives audiences an antidote to the tragedy of Elvis in its portrayal of his wife, Priscilla Presley, who “went from being this quintessential 1950s female, to being her own woman in the 1960s and 1970s, in a story that reflects the journey of women in that century”, explained Martin. “She survived being Elvis’s wife – imagine that,” said actor Olivia DeJonge, who plays Priscilla.

Many of Prada’s most scene-stealing costumes for the film – including a citrus skirt suit, and a beaded top worn with brocade kick-flare trousers – are those created for DeJonge. They are deliberately modern in feel, designed to bring Priscilla Presley to life for contemporary audiences. DeJonge met Presley for the first time at the Cannes screening of the film, and recalled that “by the end we were holding hands and crying”.

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