Austin Butler left cinemagoers stunned over the summer with his spectacular performance in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic, Elvis. The American star researched the King of Rock and Roll extensively, but one profound moment still stands out to him more than anything. Oddly enough, though, it isn’t footage from when Elvis was at his best. Instead, it showed the King at his lowest.
During Elvis’ final years he played almost nightly at the International Hotel in Las Vegas to sold-out crowds. He remained there for almost seven years – but he was not in a good way.
Elvis became unfit in his early-40s. He gained a lot of weight and was reportedly relying on prescription drugs and alcohol to get himself through each day and each performance. Still, he would go out on the stage every night and sing to the best of his ability. One of these instances still leaves Butler in tears.
Speaking in a new interview, Butler recalled tracking down every Elvis video he could find on YouTube. Eventually, he stumbled upon the star’s rendition of Unchained Melody, a 1955 song originally written by Alex North and Hy Zaret.
In the 1976 video clip – which can be seen below – Elvis told the audience: “This is a song that I just recorded, it’s an old song, it’s called Unchained Melody. I don’t know all the chords, so if you hear getting my fingers caught in the keys… it is what it is.”
Clearly nervous, Elvis bashed through the track with gusto, before eventually coming to the song’s final, extremely high note.
Butler noted how, just a year before the King’s death, Elvis was out of breath and struggling to reach his fullest potential. But when that high note came along, he hit it perfectly. And he knew it.
After the song was finished, Elvis gave a sly smile to the audience, as if to say: “I’ve still got it!”
This moment, Butler confessed, brings the actor to tears every single time. The moment is made even more powerful when you realise Elvis would be dead within the next 12 months.
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Butler has always felt extremely connected to Elvis. After spending the better part of a year impersonating him, he has even come away permanently sounding like the King with his southern drawl.
He also saw many connections between himself and the King. Butler’s mother recently died after a battle with cancer while he was 23-years-old. The same age Elvis was when he lost his mother, the woman in his life that he worshipped.
One night, after a nightmare about his mother’s death, Butler recovered using Elvis’ art. “It was that thing where I knew this could just become a very bad day, you know?” He said. “Where you start out in deep grief. And I just thought there’s got to be a way to channel this feeling. And I was obsessing so much about Elvis that it became this other thing of going: ‘OK. He felt grief. How did he deal with it?’ Well, he would sing. He would pour out his soul into song.”
Butler recalled putting on a bathrobe, setting up a camera, sitting down at his piano, and singing Unchained Melody with as much emotion as he could – directed towards his mother. He sent this videotape to Luhrmann, and the rest is history.
Even Elvis’ nearest and dearest praised the young star’s performance.
Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife, later commented on how incredible the star’s rendition of the King was. She said: “It was very emotional … Only because he got Elvis to a T, I mean to a T. It is unbelievable what this kid did, Austin Butler. He spent two years studying about Elvis, so that was like a shock to watch.”
Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, agreed. She told her Instagram followers: “It’s almost as if he channelled him. He put everything he had, his heart, his soul, everything he had into researching, reading, watching, learning. He honoured him in every way possible.”
Elvis is available for digital download now.