‘Elvis’ Movie: Why The King’s Performance of ‘Unchained Melody’ Almost Wasn’t Shown

by Suzanne Halliburton

If you’ve watched the Elvis movie, sometimes it’s difficult to figure out whether the concert footage features Austin Butler singing or the King himself.

It’s a testament to Butler that fans sometimes can’t tell who is performing. Plus, it’s also some terrific editing work. Critics are giving the Elvis movie big props for its finale, which is based on Presley’s June 21, 1977 concert in Rapid City, South Dakota. That was five days before Elvis gave his final performance on stage in Indianapolis. He died nearly two months later at the age of 42.

Elvis sang a cover of “Unchained Melody” at this concert in South Dakota. The concert was filmed for what turned out to be the King’s final TV special. Elvis played the piano and sang the tune made so popular by the Righteous Brothers. RCA Records released this version in March 1978. And it reached No. 6 on the country charts.

But during the filming of the movie, Butler, wearing prosthetics to make him look like a 42-year-old Elvis, also performed “Unchained Melody.” Editors had a choice of whether to show the vintage Presley footage or go with Butler’s version. Elvis editor Matt Villa explained the thought process during an interview with Variety.

“From a prosthetics standpoint, it was a huge job putting Austin into that makeup,” Villa said. “And that was the most significant of his makeup. There wasn’t that much material of Austin, but there were a few takes of him singing the song all way through. He did sing (“Unchained Melody”) in its entirety because there was a question mark towards the end as to whether we were going to get the real footage of Elvis and if we would be allowed to use it.”

Austin Butler portrayed the King in the Elvis movie, which was released last weekend. (Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

But the movie did receive permission to use the original concert footage. Butler sat down at the piano, but the King performed the song.

“It’s so interesting that a lot of people don’t realize we cut to the real Elvis,” Villa said. “Because it punches me in the heart every time I see that scene and you see Elvis’ face. When we’re watching the film with an audience, I’ll look around to see if people have that same emotion, and so often there isn’t. It took me a long time to realize that a lot of people don’t realize that is Elvis, and that’s a huge testament to Austin, but we do cut to the real Elvis.”

The Elvis movie opened in wide release, June 24. Since then, it’s earned roughly $54 million at the domestic box office. That includes ticket sales through Friday. Minions: the Rise of Gru is dominating the box office this holiday weekend. Analysts predict it’ll top $100 million. On Friday, the movie earned $52 million worldwide. Meanwhile, Top Gun: Maverick continues to churn through the box office. It finished second to Minions, Friday, with sales of $7.15 million, giving it a total of $545.6 million for its domestic take. Elvis was third at $5.3 million.

So about “Unchained Melody.” Here’s the footage of the song. Enjoy.