Priscilla leaves audiences all shook up

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It is a strange world that we are living in. Last year, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann released a film about Elvis Presley titled Elvis, starring Austin Butler as the King of Rock and Roll. The movie was a huge hit and earned eight Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Butler. Now, this year, we have a new film from Sofia Coppola titled Priscilla about the relationship between Elvis and his wife.

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Some skeptics might complain “Been there, done that” or “Haven’t we seen it already?” But alas, this is not Elvis’ story. Rather, it is Priscilla Presley’s time to shine and share her life. What’s more, she also executive produces the film, which is based on her memoir Elvis and Me.

Set from 1959 to 1973, the film concerns the passionate yet difficult relationship of Priscilla and Elvis. At the outset, Priscilla (played by Cailee Spaeny) is a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl whose father (Ari Cohen) is stationed at a military base in Germany. She accepts the invitation to a house party where she meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi of Euphoria) for the first time. He is serving his military service term for two years. Both are very smitten with each other, even though he is her senior by a decade. Elvis is deeply lonely from the recent death of his mother Gladys, whose memory weighs heavily on his mind. While Priscilla’s parents are mistrustful and wary of Elvis, she is keen on seeing him again, and they continue to meet up. However, Elvis is soon discharged from the Army and returns to his recording career. Priscilla is left feeling heartbroken, but her mother Ann (Dagmara Dominczyk) explains it is just a teenage infatuation that she will outgrow.

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Two years later, Priscilla is invited to join Elvis at his Graceland Estate. Despite her mother’s misgivings, Priscilla travels to the US and joins him in exploring Las Vegas. Soon afterward, she convinces her parents to enroll her at a Catholic school in Memphis, Tennessee. While her father is against the idea, her mother states Priscilla would find a way to join Elvis even if they forbade her to go. Upon moving into Graceland, Priscilla is limited by several rules imposed by Elvis’ father Vernon (Tim Post), and Elvis is frequently away working on his cheap, formulaic musical movies. When he does return home, he insists on Priscilla dying her hair jet black, applying particular make-up, and wearing clothes that he chooses for her. She is also unhappy with being subject to contempt from her schoolmates, as well as Elvis’ much-publicized affairs with Hollywood actresses. Priscilla does confront and call him out on his infidelities, but he coldly informs her to accept his behaviour for what it is.

When Priscilla turns 22, she finally marries Elvis and soon becomes pregnant with their daughter Lisa Marie. It would seem as if both have found domestic bliss, but the joy of being a family does not last for long. By this time, Elvis has become more involved with live performing in Las Vegas, thus spending more time away from his wife and child. His drug-taking has also increased to the point where he needs pills to function throughout the day. Feeling dissatisfied, Priscilla is wondering about her situation and whether it makes her happy. This leads her to make a tough decision about what kind of life she wants to have.

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Cailee Spaeny portrays Priscilla as a nuanced, complicated individual. Through the use of wigs and makeup, she realistically shows her character’s growth from the ages of 14 to 28. In the first act, she is shy and uncertain as a teenager, not knowing about the challenges of adulthood. Upon entering the second act, Spaeny is glamorized (as shown by the makeover scene) yet still feeling troubled by her lot in life. By the third act, she is more confident and self-assured as to who she is. It is essentially the story of a woman coming into her own, and Spaeny nails her character’s arc progression.

Jacob Elordi gives a layered, haunted gravitas to the role of Elvis. Unlike Austin Butler’s tour-de-force performance, this Elvis is a more troubled man who’s worn down by his stardom and addictions. He clearly loves Priscilla and performing, but his declining career is taking a toll on him physically and mentally. Coppola does not shy away from depicting Elvis’s temper, which is shown in a scene where he gets angry at Priscilla for voicing her opinion about his latest song. Yet we also see a man who’s being warped by his fame and his demons.

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Priscilla is well-shot and staged like a stage play. It almost feels like Coppola’s previous works, Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Whereas Luhrmann’s movie was a musical concerto with elaborate sequences, Coppola’s film is more like a piece of chamber music in tone- very intimate and claustrophobic. As a result, the story is scaled-down, not overtly focused on set pieces, and highly focused on character development. Although manager Colonel Tom Parker was a major presence and the narrator of Elvis, he is never physically shown in this movie, except being mentioned and alluded to by Elvis on various occasions. Vernon is shown to be running the show at Graceland by handling business affairs, but it makes one wonder if he is really helping his son or merely enabling him.

The nature of Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship is discussed and dealt with in full. While the Luhrmann film does acknowledge the ten-year age gap, Coppola examines the imbalance of their relationship and how it prevented them from working as a couple. Elvis wants Priscilla to “save” herself for marriage, but he has no issue about having flings with starlets. The double standard of what was considered acceptable for men is fully on display here, especially since Elvis tries to dictate what Priscilla can and cannot do. Perhaps the most troubling scene, though, is when he gives Priscilla some of his pills to help her sleep. This results in her being unconscious for two whole days. Had it happened in 2023, there is no way one could have gotten away without getting investigated and charged.

Priscilla is also unique in that the soundtrack does not feature any Elvis songs at all. The Presley estate declined to take part in the production and refused to license its music to the filmmakers. Indeed, we only see Elordi performing a roadhouse boogie song on piano at a house party and singing a gospel number onstage at a Vegas show. Some might be perplexed about an Elvis film not including his songs, but it must be remembered that this is Priscilla’s story.

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Instead, Coppola uses some creative thinking in selecting which tracks are featured in the movie, and her husband Thomas Mars composed the original score. The film includes Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s”, the Ramones’ cover of the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You”, Frankie Avalon’s “Venus”, and “Forever” by the Little Dippers. It almost brings to mind Moulin Rouge or even Coppola’s earlier film Marie Antoinette (2006), which used pop music amidst the 18th Century period setting. We also get to hear Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, which was the last song Elvis ever sang to Priscilla (and the one which Whitney Houston covered nearly twenty years later). More contemporary artists feature on the soundtrack, such as Sons of Raphael’s performance of “My Elixir” and Spectrum’s “How You Satisfy Me.” The result is something that is both anachronistic and yet satisfying.

Overall, Priscilla is a solid, thought-provoking piece. Coppola continues to prove herself as a formidable director here. Spaeny and Elordi are both realistic and complex. An impressive, well-directed, well-acted film.