Composer Elliott Wheeler worked closely with music editor Jamieson Shaw, as the film dances between Butler’s vocals, Elvis Presley’s voice and newly recorded versions of the King’s classics like Kacey Musgraves’ rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Wheeler says Butler recorded every single line of each performance seen in the film, and Presley’s voice was then mixed in when needed. Wheeler explains, “If we did end up using Elvis takes, we ended up slicing [parts of] Austin’s performance. We used a lot of the breaths, grunts and body movements that are Austin, and we’d switch back to Elvis.”
Though it is primarily Butler’s vocals that audiences will be hearing, the latter half of the film has more of Presley’s voice incorporated. Wheeler clarifies, “Austin performs everything up until 1968 where he is in black leather. Everything after that was Elvis, and that was partly to do with the fidelity of the stems — the stereo recordings sourced from mixes of multiple individual tracks, such as drums, vocals and bass — in this case, we were using vocal stems.”
Wheeler continues, “Because we could isolate all the other stems, we would work out where every breath came.” Furthermore, Wheeler worked with movement coach Polly Bennett to look at how Presley’s body movement impacted his vocal singing. “If he were swinging his arm, that would affect the singing, so we would watch Austin embody all of that and get that technique down.”
Shaw and Wheeler pulled in different Elvis tracks from across his body of work, even combining elements. For example, Shaw pulled from “Edge of Reality” and “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” to make a completely new musical piece.
With the classics, Wheeler notes “Can’t Help Falling in Love” became a theme to represent the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge). Musgraves’ version was stripped back to piano and vocals, which is heard as the couple kiss. By the end, it’s used again during an emotional storytelling point.
Wheeler’s favorite part to score came right at the beginning of the film. “It’s called the flyaway weave,” he says, as the storyline goes from Presley’s birth to his performance at the hayride.
Helping to inform that part of the story was Presley’s childhood friend, Sam Bell, who Luhrmann spoke with, according to Wheeler. “He said to Baz, ‘Elvis used to go down to these Pentecostal churches and we would find him at the front of the congregation. He would be doing all those moves. He would also go to juke joints.'”
That kernel of information became the jumping-off point for the scene with Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup singing “That’s Alright Mama.” It was an opportunity for the film to show the audience, on a visceral and audio level, the idea of where Presley’s music came from.
Says Wheeler, “It culminates into this big orchestral moment when Elvis walks onto the stage. That scene had all the elements of both bringing a new contemporary artists score, the Pentecostal and the traditional Elvis recordings, together.” He adds, “It’s a six-minute sequence that packs so much storytelling into a short amount of time.”