Sofia Coppola Demystifies an Iconic Rock Romance in 'Priscilla' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

On Screen » Movie+TV Reviews

Sofia Coppola Demystifies an Iconic Rock Romance in 'Priscilla'


Published November 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Cailee Spaeny plays Elvis' bride in Sofia Coppola's demystifying but still dreamy biopic. - COURTESY OF SABRINA LANTOS
  • Courtesy Of Sabrina Lantos
  • Cailee Spaeny plays Elvis' bride in Sofia Coppola's demystifying but still dreamy biopic.

The film opens on a pair of shapely feet with salmon-painted toes padding across a pristine white shag carpet. False lashes and eyeliner are applied in a mirror. Welcome back to the intimate, impeccably curated world of Sofia Coppola.

This time around, the aesthetic is midcentury America, and the subject is how Priscilla Beaulieu became Priscilla Presley and what happened afterward, as told in her 1985 memoir Elvis and Me: The True Story of the Love Between Priscilla Presley and the King of Rock 'N Roll. Cailee Spaeny ("Mare of Easttown"), who plays the title character, won the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival.

The deal

In 1959, 14-year-old army brat Priscilla is bored and friendless on the German base where her dad is stationed. She's doing her homework at a soda counter when a grown man approaches her and invites her to a house party to meet rock idol Elvis Presley, who has enlisted in the U.S. Army.

With reluctant permission from her parents, Priscilla encounters the king of rock and roll (Jacob Elordi). She's too shy to say much to this larger-than-life older man, but Elvis confides in her, expressing his grief over his mother's death, and a bond is formed.

Elvis abandons Priscilla for a year or so, then returns to invite her to Graceland, where she learns about his habit of popping uppers and downers. Soon she moves in, earning her high school diploma at a Catholic school while spending chaste nights in her boyfriend's room.

By the time they marry, in 1967, Priscilla is well aware of the rules of the relationship: Elvis can have affairs, while she must always be ready, waiting and devoted, accepting his critiques of her appearance while keeping her own opinions to herself. She accepts that arrangement ... for a while.

Will you like it?

I'll never forget the experience of seeing the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! The filmmakers played the whole story as broad comedy, including the marriage of Lewis (Dennis Quaid) to his 13-year-old cousin (Winona Ryder), who's portrayed as a precocious, randy hayseed. "Cringe" doesn't begin to describe watching the scene of their wedding night in a theater.

What is it actually like for a teenager to be courted (groomed, we might say today) by an older man who is beloved by millions? While the makers of Great Balls of Fire! seemed too embarrassed to face that question, Coppola isn't. Whatever you think about Elvis' intentions toward Priscilla — the film indicates they didn't have sex until she was at least 18 — Priscilla doesn't minimize the enormous power differential in their romance: child and adult, schoolgirl and rock star.

In early scenes, Spaeny is convincing as a 14-year-old — the ducked head and closed posture, the small voice, the desperate efforts to project sophistication. Her interactions with Elvis are almost painful to watch. Sure, Priscilla is besotted with this man who brings glamour and excitement into her life and even confides his vulnerabilities to her. It's a teen fantasy on the level of Twilight. But she clearly lacks the experience to deal with Elvis on an equal plane, let alone call him on his bullshit.

Although Elordi played the dimpled, quasi-psychopathic heel on "Euphoria," Priscilla doesn't portray Elvis as a villain. The film focuses tightly on Priscilla, putting her in nearly every shot. But we see enough of Elvis to grasp his own feelings of frustration and powerlessness, of being used and abused by the industry, and to understand that exerting control over his bride is a way to compensate.

The movie's overall mood is typical for Coppola: languorous loneliness. When Priscilla is with Elvis, living out the more documented moments of their lives, the director sometimes slips into the elegiac montage mode that dominated Baz Luhrmann's Elvis (though, unlike Luhrmann, Coppola doesn't have the rights to Elvis' music). But then the nostalgic filters disappear. We snap back to the reality of a teenager living virtually locked up on her mostly absent boyfriend's estate, where she's scolded for trying to befriend the secretaries or even sitting on the lawn.

Like most of Coppola's films, this one passes in a dreamy haze, and there are times when we may wish she'd filled the haze with more distinct details. We barely know Priscilla as an individual apart from Elvis: A few scenes in, he's already the center of her universe. Not until late in the film do we see her talk and laugh with the confidence of a mature woman who might have her own personality.

Small as that evolution is, it's satisfying. Whatever Elvis' fans think of it, Priscilla is an absorbing study of a perhaps all-too-common phenomenon: A girl surrenders herself completely to the man of her dreams and then grows up enough to see him with the painful clarity of daylight.

If you like this, try...

Elvis (2022; Max, Prime Video, rentable): I'm not a big fan of Luhrmann's biopic, which is much more about Elvis the icon than Elvis the person. But it is an impressive spectacle, and its bombastic style makes for a fascinating contrast with Priscilla.

Marie Antoinette (2006; rentable): Of all Coppola's films, this one is most akin to Priscilla: Both reexamine women who are famous for their relationships and their excessive lifestyles.

Elvis by the Presleys (2005; Cineverse, check your local library): Priscilla, Lisa Marie and other family members share their memories of Elvis in this well-regarded TV documentary.

Speaking of...