Austin Butler’s ultimate ‘Elvis’ playlist: nine key songs he listened to while filming

Gospel, rock and blues tunes that helped him get into the King's mindset

Anyone who’s witnessed Austin Butler’s exhilarating star-making turn as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s eponymous biopic can’t help but be blown away, as he pulls off the astonishing task of getting beyond the King’s omnipresent image and countless imitations. “You want to be incredibly meticulous,” says the 31-year-old actor to NME. “I wanted every gesture and everywhere that his eyes go and the way that he moves his entire body to feel as truthful and identical to him as possible but it’s got to feel as though it’s happening for the first time.” Grab a peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich as Butler talks us through the tracks that helped him slip into Elvis’ (blue suede) shoes.

Elvis Presley – ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’

“Starting from his early stuff, I’d go for ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’. I love listening to that song as far as hearing him going from the slow stuff in the beginning to when he kicks it up. Also, hearing his early live performances on the [compilation] album ‘A Boy From Tupelo: The Complete 1953-55 Recordings’ was helpful, because you hear different qualities, like when he sings ‘Long Tall Sally’ onstage, it has an explosive power, so that helped me a lot for those early performances.”

Elvis Presley – ‘(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)’


“Throughout his career, Elvis would go back to spiritual music as his solace so there’s a number of different gospel songs that I would return to, including ‘(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)’. When we went down to Nashville and recorded all the gospel numbers for the film, getting to be in these small churches listening to gospel being sung for eight hours straight, it sent chills down my spine and I couldn’t help but move.”

Elvis Presley – ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Laughing Version)’

“There’s a recording of Elvis singing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ onstage where he can’t stop laughing. He’s almost crying! When I show that to people who haven’t heard it before, they can’t help but fall in love with him because he had one of the greatest, most genuine, open-hearted laughs. I felt like this gave me a window into him.”

Elvis Presley – ‘Polk Salad Annie’

“Every day, I listened to two songs while driving to work which were ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and ‘Never Been to Spain’. There’s a live performance of ‘Polk Salad Annie’ he does in [the 1970 documentary] Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which is great because you get to see how dynamic his energy is and how he uses humour in the music.”

Elvis Presley – ‘Never Been to Spain’


“It just fires me up. I love to turn it on super-loud in the car and drive. Singing ‘Never Been to Spain’ once on set, my voice went out. I lost the mid-range of my voice for a couple of days. Thankfully, it was on a Friday so we could take the weekend off, so I went on vocal rest and didn’t speak for two days to let the vocal cords rest. It’s a tough sing!”

Elvis Presley – ‘Unchained Melody’

“Every time I watch or hear ‘Unchained Melody’, it brings tears to my eyes. It was a tricky one to sing, because at that point, I was quite large and so my breathing was constricted because you’re strapped into the jumpsuit.”

Elvis Presley – ‘Separate Ways’

“It’s interesting tracing the songs around the time of his divorce, like ‘Separate Ways’, and knowing that when he recorded it, he just stared up at the ceiling afterwards and shook his head, with tears in his eyes. And would listen to it over and over. You’re hearing the voice of a man going through an incredible amount of pain and there’s such honesty to certain lines he sings, so that made me feel very connected to his soul.”

Elvis Presley – ‘Trouble’

“That was fiery and exciting! What I loved is you can read a lot of stories about Elvis performing on stage in that small amount of time before he goes into the army and his mother passes away, where he’s at the height of his primal, animalistic power. You can see images of it, but you can’t see a lot of footage, because if he was on television, he didn’t push it quite as far as he would live. There are stories of him spitting on the stage, and rolling around on it, and completely giving what sounds like a punk-rock show. So it was fun to perform ‘Trouble’ and for it to be at this pivotal point in the story, with real emotional meaning behind it. It’s a moment where he’s rebelling and being true to his own artistic and moral integrity. The way he sings ‘Trouble’ in the ’68 Comeback Special became an influence for the way I performed it in the 1950s [scenes] because he has more grit, and does a growl that became very influential for me.”

Howlin’ Wolf – ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’

“For the most part, I listened to Elvis, but I also listened to Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard and all the other people who are in the film a lot. I was constantly drawn to the passion of Howlin’ Wolf because you can watch videos of him singing and imagine Elvis being in Beale Street, Memphis, and watching him sing and that’s exciting.”

‘Elvis’ is out now on Premium Video on Demand, 4K, Blu-ray and DVD