While Elvis has been deemed the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” for over 60 years, many people rightfully point out that countless Black artists—both men and women—pioneered the genre long before Elvis started shaking his hips. With Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic Elvis hitting theaters, the director along with the film’s stars have opened up about Elvis’ connection to the Black community, and the musicians in the rock ‘n’ roll genre who came before him.
“Well, it’s even separate from important,” Luhrmann says in a new interview with IGN. “It’s not possible to tell the story of Elvis Presley without dealing with the issue of his relationship to Black music, Black culture, and in particular, the issue of race.”
“No, you can’t tell Elvis a story without [exploring] that,” Austin Butler, who plays Elvis, affirms before adding, “I’m so proud of the fact that we get to be a part of this film that puts his life in context, specifically around that, because credit needs to be given where credit is due.”
In Elvis, you’ll see actors playing B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Big Mama Thornton—all major players in the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays B.B. King, and said the topic of race and Elvis was the first thing he brought up when he was approached about the film.
“I also was like, ‘And then what is the conversation around it? How are we going to say it? Were they actually friends? Are we going to use B.B. just to defend Elvis? If that’s not the case, what’s the truth?’” Harrison says in the interview.
“We did a little investigation before we signed on, and then once we found out B.B. really was a real advocate of Elvis and he loved him and they were friends,” he continues. “I got really excited to dive into that story and discover some of those nuances and develop that with Austin and Baz.”
Singer-songwriter Yola appears in Elvis as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the woman now widely known as one of the creators of the rock genre.
“It feels really important [for audiences to know about the Black pioneers of rock music],” Yola says. “And the idea of innovation as well. I especially want young Black girls to be able to court the idea of genius. We don’t really talk about women as geniuses enough in music, which is my trade as you know.”
“I hope this movie is very informative to the entire audience and that I hope we all go back and do our research like we did when we got assigned these roles and really discover where it all came from,” Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard, says. “And most importantly, I hope people of color dive deeper into ownership and protect that and cherish that because we are the blueprint. We are the people that have opened these doors and paved the way for the next to come. So, yeah. It’s an honor.”
Elvis enters the building (theaters) on June 24.