“Elvis' life is in three acts,” Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann tells Apple Music. “You have punk/rock/rebel Elvis. You have Hollywood pop Elvis: He's at the height of his powers. And then you have the barely-can-stand-up, corrupted-body, 'Unchained Melody' Elvis.” Luhrmann's most beloved films include a modern Shakespearean adaptation (1996's Romeo + Juliet), a dizzying musical set in the Belle Époque of Paris (2001's Moulin Rouge!), and an extravagant return to the Roaring Twenties (2013's The Great Gatsby). They span centuries, settings, and drastically different storylines, but they all have one thing in common: Each movie is complemented by an impeccably curated soundtrack.
But for Elvis, Luhrmann tackled a new challenge: He told Elvis Presley’s life story by revisiting some of his greatest hits, while also connecting them to the songs that inspired him—and the artists he inspired generations later. “I think that there are three different acts in the soundtrack album, too, and I've never had that before,” says Luhrmann. Austin Butler, who plays Elvis in the film, does a remarkably faithful impression on the mic, and his versions that pepper Elvis' first “act” make it to the tracklist, as does a selection of modern songs that were inspired by the film, like “Vegas,” which pairs Doja Cat's bars with Shonka Dukureh—who plays Big Mama Thornton—belting out “Hound Dog” on a loop. There are also a number of covers and Elvis standards reimagined by an eclectic array of top-billing rappers, rockers, R&B powerhouses, and country crooners, as well as “duets” featuring Presley's own voice.
“There's pure Elvis, there's pure soul, there's pure gospel,” Luhrmann says of the soundtrack. “Jazmine Sullivan's 'Motherless Child'—which was in the '68 Comeback Special—she just brings kind of a whole new spirit to it, plus she's one of the greatest singers of all time. I got a great duet between Jack White and Elvis, 'Power of My Love.' And let me tell you, it's an awesome rock cut. Jack White is one of these great Elvis fans, but the reason I did it is, the Colonel [Tom Parker, Elvis' manager] never let Elvis do duets. James Brown wanted to do an album with Elvis! And so having Jack and Elvis do a duet is sort of sacrilege to the Colonel's thinking, but it speaks across time.”
Eminem told Luhrmann he wanted to do a song that celebrates the relationship he has with Elvis, and that’s where “The King and I,” his contribution featuring CeeLo Green, came from. “It's just showing that the music, all great music, is elastic,” says Luhrmann of the long-reaching impact of the source material's influence. “If it's great, it can be used in many different ways, in many different places and times.”