“I’m pretty particular about what is out there on Elvis,” said Jerry Schilling, who befriended the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll during a touch football game on July 1, 1954, and has been protective of the man and his legacy ever since.
“I’m a pretty tough audience when it comes to my friend,” Schilling said.
Take it as a positive sign, then, that Schilling will return to his Memphis hometown this week for the first time in three years to join Priscilla Presley, Australian director Baz Luhrmann, star Austin Butler, and other movie actors and Warner Bros. representatives for an all-hands-on-deck promotion of the new “Elvis” film at the singer’s legendary estate, Graceland.
More than 60 print, broadcast and digital media writers and personalities from the United States and such countries as Brazil, Taiwan, Canada and Mexico will be in Memphis for a weekend series of screenings, interviews, photo opportunities, mansion tours, Beale Street meals, Sun Studio treks and other events intended to sell “Elvis” the movie — and Elvis the performer, the phenomenon, the tourist destination and the “brand” — to audiences and to travelers.
Dozens more from around the world will participate on Zoom, so they can say they interviewed Luhrmann and Butler at Graceland, even if only virtually.
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The ambitious junket — the first such Warner Bros. event since the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020 — comes just two weeks before the nationwide June 24 opening of Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle biographical epic, which covers the singer’s life, from Tupelo to Memphis to California to Las Vegas; runs 159 minutes; and “cost at least $150 million to make and market,” according to The New York Times.
Warner Bros. executives hope that those moviegoers who elevated such other distinctive avatars of pop cultural cool as Doctor Strange and Tom Cruise into post-pandemic box-office saviors will respond with similar zeal to Austin Butler’s onscreen incarnation of Elvis Presley; meanwhile, Elvis Presley Enterprises and Memphis Tourism officials hope that awareness of “Elvis” will radiate like the stone-and-metal-studded pattern on the singer’s “Aztec Sun” jumpsuit and spur renewed worldwide interest in the singer’s art and hometown.
‘See the Film, Live the Legacy’
“We are so excited about this ‘Elvis’ movie, we think it will be a billboard for people to want to come to Memphis and to experience Graceland for themselves,” said Kevin Kane, Memphis Tourism CEO and president.
“See the Film, Live the Legacy” is the slogan developed by Memphis Tourism to connect the dots between the movie’s Australia-built recreations of Beale Street, Graceland and other destinations to their local inspirations. A dedicated Memphistravel.com/ElvisMovie website page offers a handy guide to Lauderdale Courts (Elvis’ childhood Memphis home), Humes High School (Elvis’ alma mater) and other landmarks in the King’s Memphis life.
The office’s other Kevin K., Kevin Kern, vice president of public relations, said Memphis Tourism has been working with Warner Bros. on publicity for months. Meanwhile, a Memphis Tourism representative is on the job fulltime in New Zealand and Australia, selling Memphis to Luhrmann’s home base; in addition, contracted Memphis Tourism employees in London, Berlin and elsewhere are promoting Elvis-themed vacations to Europeans.
Memphis Tourism also is organizing trips to Beale, the National Civil Rights Museum and other landmarks for the visiting journalists and influencers, who begin arriving this week and will remain here through early next week.
Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler, more come to Memphis
Key “Elvis” movie figures expected in Memphis on behalf of the film include Luhrmann (who made the Graceland archive his home-away-from-home for the months of research and planning that preceded the start of shooting in January 2020); Butler (previously best-known for his role as a Manson Family creep in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”); producer, production designer and costume designer Catherine Martin (a multiple Oscar-winner for her work on husband Baz Luhrmann’s films “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby”); Olivia DeJonge (who in the movie plays Elvis’ girlfriend/wife/ex-wife Priscilla); Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who plays B.B. King); Alton Mason (who plays Little Richard); and the singer-songwriter known as Yola (who plays guitar-strumming gospel shouter Sister Rosetta Tharpe).
Schilling, 80, said he and longtime friend Priscilla Presley arrive Friday in Memphis, from their homes in Southern California. The trip follows their highly publicized appearances last month alongside Luhrmann, Butler, Tom Hanks (who is not scheduled to be in Memphis) and other “Elvis” creators at the Met Gala in New York and the Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious French cinema event where “Elvis” had its world premiere and received a 12-minute standing ovation.
“Priscilla and I flew to Cannes with Tom Hanks and Austin,” said Schilling, who was a member of Elvis’ so-called “Memphis Mafia” of associates. “Warner Bros. flew us over on their jet.” (Even so, Schilling remains more stunned by the Met Gala, which was a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “$35,000 a seat, can you believe that?” he asked. “That’s a little high for me.”)
Jerry Schilling: ‘They did this out of love’
Although Schilling — who now manages the Beach Boys — and Priscilla have organized or participated in the productions of many Elvis projects (such as the 2018 HBO documentary, “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”), they were not officially involved in “Elvis.”
However, prior to the film’s actually shooting, Schilling and Priscilla did meet with Luhrmann and Catherine Martin and, later, with Tom Hanks and Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, for hours-long meals and discussions about Elvis and Elvis’ manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker (played by Hanks in the movie), among other topics.
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They trusted Luhrmann and his team, Schilling said. Nevertheless, he said he and Priscilla did not want to go to Cannes or otherwise be seen to endorse the movie unless they actually liked the movie.
“I believed Baz and liked what he said, but I know he has his own style, and he does what he wants to do. He’s not going to tell everything that he’s planning, let’s put it that way.”
After seeing “Elvis,” however, Schilling and the Presley family members — not just Priscilla, but daughter Lisa Marie Presley and granddaughter Riley Keough — have become the movie’s biggest boosters.
“There is definitely some ‘Baz flash,’ but it doesn’t take away from the drama,” Schilling said. As for Butler’s performance, “It’s one of the best acting jobs I’ve ever seen.”
Referring to Elvis, he said, “I lived with the man 10 years and I knew him 23 years, and I am extremely pleased and proud to have this film done on my friend in such a respectful and intelligent and fun way.”
The “Graceland” junket more or less marks the end of the movie’s pre-release promotional campaign. On June 21, public “Early Access” screenings will be held at theaters nationwide (including at the Malco Paradiso, Collierville and DeSoto cinemas); then the movie opens, essentially, everywhere, with screenings the evening of June 23 before its official opening date of June 24.
“I really think they did this out of love,” Schilling said of Luhrmann and his “Elvis” team. The movie and this week’s press events at Graceland “will be very good for Memphis,” he said.
“And there’s a lot of Memphis in this movie — as there should be.”