Austin Butler morphs incredibly into Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s new ‘The King’ biopic, but did Butler sing Elvis songs for the movie?
Audiences were blown away by the resemblance between Austin Butler and Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann Elvisbut does Butler really sing the songs from the film? Elvis sees Butler – who also plays sadistic murderer Charles Denton (aka “Tex” Watson) in Quentin Tarantino Once upon a time in Hollywood—completely transformed, with Butler talking, walking, dancing and singing like The King. And, although Butler sang every line of every song heard in the film, what audiences hear while watching Elvis is a bit more complicated.
Elvis strives to engage audiences in the full breadth and scope of Presley’s life, and as such the film covers a lot of ground. Luhrmann depicts Presley’s childhood, spent living in impoverished black communities in Memphis in the late 1930s and early 1940s, where Presley discovered gospel music. It wasn’t until 1954, when Presley’s first single, “That’s Alright”, was released and Colonel Tom Parker entered Elvis’ life, that Presley’s first song was heard in film. As such, Presley’s singing in the film spans from the years 1954 until Presley’s death in 1977, spanning just 23 years.
However, Butler’s singing is only featured for about half of those years. According Elvis composer Elliott Wheeler (via Variety)Butler”performs everything until 1968 when it is in black leather. All that followed was Elvis…” The recording process involved still included a lot of Butler in Elvis’ post-1968 performances but wove Butler and Presley’s vocals together using what Wheeler calls “stems.”
Stems are a recording tool used to isolate tracks in the stereo recording process. This allows composers like Wheeler to separate each individual instrument in a stereo recording and, in this case, allowed Wheeler to isolate Presley’s original vocal tracks and place them in Elvis. Interestingly, this same process was used in the recent Queen Biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. “If we ended up using Elvis takes, we ended up slicing [parts of] Austin’s performance, Wheeler says (via Variety). “We used a lot of breaths and grunts and body movements that are Austin, and we were going back to Elvis.”
While stereo sound (and therefore stereo stems) became the norm in audio production beginning in the late 1960s, access to Presley’s original audio does not necessarily explain why Presley’s voice has was used compared to Butler’s when filming the icon’s final years in Elvis. Butler’s performances throughout the first half of the film certainly dispel any doubts about his vocal abilities: his range and his Presley-like drawl when the vocals are impeccable. However, the songs Butler, 30, sings solo in Elvis ended in 1968, when Elvis would have been 33. In this way, it is likely that Presley’s heavy drug use and age led to changes in his voice that were impossible for Butler to convey.
Also, while some may be disappointed with the audio assistance in the film, the use of the stems to achieve vocal authenticity for the final years of Presley’s life doesn’t take anything away from the biopic or Butler’s work. Butler’s performance in Elvis was with the goal of bringing the story of Presley’s life to the screen, which it does impeccably. His job was not to be Presley because, as the film shows, there was only ever one Elvis Presley.
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