PLOT: Young Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny) meets Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) while he’s stationed in Germany and quickly becomes part of his surreal world.
REVIEW: Sofia Coppola‘s Priscilla is an interesting companion to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. While that latter film was a dazzling spectacle that took up head-on into Elvis’s legend, Priscilla takes a much more intimate look. While Elvis’s life was jet set and exciting, what was Priscilla’s life like as she waited at Graceland for him to return? As Coppola’s film expertly shows, her life was often far from exciting – it was downright dull.
While some have blasted the film for torpedoing Elvis’s legend, it takes a pretty balanced, nuanced approach, and the King of Rock n’ Roll emerges as a primarily sympathetic, tragic figure. While the film will be controversial due to how it shows his lightning-quick flashes of rage – such as a moment where he throws a chair at Priscilla – there’s nothing in here that will surprise any serious fan. He wasn’t a perfect man, and his attitudes were largely of his time. The movie makes the case that any time Elvis came close to fulfilling himself, be it spiritually or artistically, the Colonel (an unseen figure here) was around to slap him down.
The movie makes the case that Elvis, in many ways, was at his best when he was stationed in Germany, as it was the one time of his life that he could be his own man. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Elvis takes Priscilla to see the John Huston film Beat the Devil, and he knows every word of Humphrey Bogart’s dialogue, having studied the film. If you’ve seen Elvis’s Flaming Star or King Creole, you’ll know that Presley, had he been given the right material, could have been a great actor. He was never given the chance.
All that said, this is a movie about Priscilla – not Elvis. Cailee Spaeny is terrific in the lead, believably playing a character who goes from being a fourteen-year-old lovestruck kid to a mature woman in his later twenties wanting to spread her wings. Much has been written about how young Priscilla was when she met Elvis, and the movie adheres to what she always said about the relationship – that Elvis never took liberties with her sexually until years had gone by. The film hints at a certain sexual dysfunction for Elvis, at least as far as Priscilla went, with him treating her more like an untouchable princess than a woman to be desired, something that starts to weigh on her.
What Coppola’s film does brilliantly is show just how boring life at Graceland could be. When Elvis is away, Priscilla is left to her own devices, with nothing to do. She has no interests or hobbies – she never grew beyond being an infatuated teenage girl. It’s only when she has a child and takes up martial arts in her twenties that she starts to come into her own.
Life isn’t shown to be much better when Elvis is around, with him constantly surrounded by the Memphis Mafia, meaning that alone time with Elvis is mostly consigned to them watching old movies in bed. She never really gets to know him, and Spaeny’s mounting frustration is well-conveyed.
As far as Jacob Elordi’s performance as Elvis goes, he’s much lower-key than Austin Butler was. Elordi tries to evoke reality rather than legend, and while he’s excellent in the quiet scenes, he comes up short when it comes time to depict his magnetism. While Coppola wasn’t given the rights to the Elvis catalog, she does recreate the ’68 Comeback Special, and Elordi isn’t nearly as convincing in these scenes as Butler was. However, Elordi shouldn’t be judged too harshly, as Butler devoted years of his life to the part, while Elordi was just thrown in. His performance is as good as it could have been, even if it’s less definitive than Butler’s.
As usual, Sofia Coppola’s film is beautifully designed and mounted, with a terrific score by Phoenix. While not having any of Elvis’s music hampers the film, as does the smaller budget (the outfits look flimsy at times), Coppola does well with the resources she’s been allocated. The movie will likely draw out a decent-sized audience, especially given the appetite for Elvis in the wake of Luhrmann’s film. However, this is a much slower-paced movie, and by design, it’s often dull (an older gent sitting next to me in the theatre snored the entire film). Keep your expectations in check. But, if you go into Priscilla looking for a different side of a story that’s already been told, you may find Coppola’s film enlightening.