In an unannounced appearance that was a surprise if not exactly a shock, actor Tom Hanks joined director Baz Luhrmann, fellow cast members and representatives of the Presley family for the Memphis premiere at Graceland of the biographical motion picture, “Elvis.”
The two-time Best Actor Oscar-winner said he had made many movies in castles and museums that had belonged to kings and queens, but “all those kings and queens have an ‘S’ on the end of them, meaning there are more than one. At Graceland, we are at the home of the King.”
Luhrmann concurred, adding that the Graceland premiere had an “almost mythical” aspect.
“It all started here, and it’s amazing we are all back here,” said the 59-year-old Australian director, who has restaged the life of Elvis Presley — from Tupelo boyhood to Memphis ascendancy to Hollywood stagnancy to Las Vegas resurrection and rust — with the epic “Baz-amatazz” razzle-dazzle of his previous films, including “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby.”
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Luhrmann told the audience that being at the Cannes Film Festival, where “Elvis” had its world premiere May 25, was “great,” but being at Graceland “is not like a normal premiere… I know in this room there are many, many people who knew Elvis or saw Elvis…”
“It feels like coming home to me,” said Austin Butler, 30, who stars as Elvis in the film, and who acted on sets in Queensland, Australia, that painstakingly recreated rooms inside Graceland, nightclubs on Beale Street and the Presleys’ first Memphis residence, in the Lauderdale Courts apartment complex.
The Saturday night screening in The Guest House at Graceland — the 450-room hotel just north of the Presley mansion on Elvis Presley Boulevard — was the highlight of a weekend of Memphis activities organized by Warner Bros. that brought dozens of international reporters, bloggers and “influencers” to Memphis, for interviews with the stars, tours of Memphis, and mixers at Graceland campus bars where the cocktails included the “Pink Cadillac” (tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and hibiscus syrup).
Others invited to the screening in the 464-seat Guest House theater included local dignitaries, Elvis scholars, artists, musicians and people who had known Elvis, including Dixie Locke Emmons, Elvis’ first high-school girlfriend (portrayed by Natasha Bassett in the movie), and Jerry Phillips, son of Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who essentially “discovered” Elvis.
The event marked a final major pre-release push from Warner Bros. for “Elvis,” which cost upwards of $150 million to make and market. The movie opens all over the world this month, with a June 24 release date in North America, preceded by public preview screenings June 21 and June 23.
In addition to Hanks — who plays Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, whom Hanks referred to as a “diabolical genius” — and Butler, cast members who came to Graceland to do interviews and to make remarks before the movie included Olivia DeJonge (who plays Priscilla Presley), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (B.B. King), Alton Marsh (Little Richard) and the singer-songwriter Yola (Sister Rosetta Tharpe).
Without exception, the actors said they approached playing real-life characters with a sense of pride and responsibility. As “a weirdo who was into vintage music,” Yola in particular said “Elvis” had given her a chance to bring Sister Rosetta Tharpe into “a mainstream space” where most audience members probably are unfamiliar with Sharpe, a blues-gospel vocalist and guitarist who “turned gospel guitar into shredding.”
Also participating were Priscilla Presley, who was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973 and who essentially functions as Graceland’s ambassador and a steward of her late husband’s legacy; Joel Weinshanker, majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises; Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ longtime friend; Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis and Priscilla; and Lisa Marie’s daughter, actress Riley Keough, who in May won the Caméra d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival — yes, the same event where “Elvis” premiered — for best first feature film for her directorial debut, “War Pony.”
“The only reason I’m here, it’s been done right,” Lisa Marie said of “Elvis,” giving her endorsement to Luhrmann’s and Butler’s interpretations of her father’s story.
“I love talking to an ink-stained wretch,” said Hanks, greeting a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, before reminiscing about his first trip to Graceland, in 1999, when he was in Memphis shooting scenes for his role as a soon-to-be-stranded FedEx systems analyst in director Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away.”
“I had anticipated being disenchanted by it, but I was actually quite moved,” said Hanks, 65. “Here is the story of a guy who was born in a Tupelo shack and changed the world in a way that is undeniable.”
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A six-time Oscar nominee who took home back-to-back Best Actor awards for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia,” Hanks wore a TCB pin on his lapel, reproducing Elvis’ signature logo, the letters “TCB” accompanied by a lightning bolt (in other words, “Taking care of business in a flash”). Luhrmann, meanwhile, wore what he called a “good luck charm” that he had made in Queensland, prior to the shooting of “Elvis”: a gold chain with a TCB emblem featuring a diamond-studded lightning bolt. For Luhrmann, the Graceland archives became something of a home-away-from-home before production on “Elvis” started in early 2020; he was in Memphis frequently for the three years prior to the shooting of the movie.
Butler, too, immersed himself in Elvis. “There were two years where I didn’t do anything but obsess about Elvis,” he said. “I just had the greatest time trying to figure him out, and listening to the music. It’s a great way to spend two years.”
The two years paid off, according to Lisa Marie Presley.
“I was quite young, but I still remember my father’s energy and his vibe,” said Lisa Marie, 58. “And Austin, he — what’s the word? — he nailed it.”
She said Butler’s success in the role was a contrast to previous attempts at Elvis onscreen.
“In my life, it’s been one disappointment after another, in terms of people portraying my father. Bless their hearts, I’m sure they meant well.”