Elvis Premiere

On Wednesday night, the historic Franklin Theatre hosted the Middle Tennessee premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

It felt fitting to watch a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of the King of Rock and Roll himself at a movie theatre that moonlights as a music venue.

The screening was packed, and a large portion of the audience actually worked on the film, mostly on the movie’s soundtrack. Like Elvis himself, the film has myriad connections to Music City.

“We couldn’t take everyone to Hollywood, so we brought Hollywood to Tennessee,” said Shannon Sanders, executive director of creative at BMI and Grammy-winning producer from Nashville.

Sanders was not only involved with the film’s soundtrack and spearheaded the effort to bring the premiere to the Franklin Theatre, but he also plays a pentecostal pastor/singer in the movie.

A number of Nashville-affiliated artists are featured on the movie’s sprawling soundtrack, including Yola (who portrays Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the film), Jack White and Kacey Musgraves. Gary Clark Jr. isn’t on the soundtrack, but he does play blues singer Arthur Crudup in the movie. 

Prior to the showing, Sanders hosted a panel discussion with Tony Brown and Larry Strickland, two legendary local music figures who were in Elvis Presley’s circle during his heyday.

The pair shared stories from their time with Elvis. Brown was a pianist who toured with the Takin Care of Business Band and took part in the famous “Jungle Room” recording sessions. He spoke about time spent at Graceland and performing with Elvis.

Strickland, husband to the late Naomi Judd and a Williamson County resident, reminisced on his time as Elvis’ backup singer and first seeing the infamous performer’s wild stage antics.

Sanders also surprised the audience by video-calling Luhrmann prior to the showing, allowing him to speak with the crowd.

“I want to give a big shoutout to everyone in Nashville,” the director said through Sanders’ phone. “It’s been so awesome working with Shannon and all of you great artists in Nashville. You’ll hear what we created in that film together. It gives a total pulse and life force to the movie. I can’t thank you guys enough.”

Luhrmann then had everyone in the audience collectively yell, “it’s time to take care of business and see the movie!”

The premiere also doubled as a fundraising venture for the Franklin Theatre, which operates as a nonprofit. In a speech before the screening, Heritage Foundation of Williamson County president and CEO Bari Beasley shared the theatre was in danger of closing more than a decade ago. But after raising $8 million, the foundation was able to save the historic location.

As for the film itself, “Elvis” is a rollicking good time. Mileage may vary with Luhrmann’s over-the-top style, but it feels appropriate for the King’s larger-than-life persona, and Austin Butler is electric as Elvis.

The film will open nationwide, including in Williamson County at the AMC Thoroughbred 20, on Thursday.