Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ Brings Stark Clarity to the Journey of Mrs. Elvis Presley
Everyone has heard the saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” It can mean many things, and sometimes the woman in question is more damned than gifted. History is strewn with the tales of unique females tethered to “great men” who were the equivalent of handling a hurricane. Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” looks back at the marriage of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu as a stark, human experience stripped of all the rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Put aside that Elvis completely changed music and popular culture, and this becomes the portrait of a young girl pulled into the orbit of a man aware of his power.
Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) first appears on screen like an image out of vintage ‘50s America, sitting in a diner. But the location is Germany in 1959, where her father is a stationed military officer. She’s approached by another officer who asks if she’s ever heard of Elvis Presley. Of course she has. The young girl is invited to a party where the drafted rock star (Jacob Elordi) is hanging out with friends. He’s surprised at first to learn that Priscilla is barely in ninth grade. Elvis is sincere in expressing his loneliness following the death of his mother. He likes Priscilla’s company and soon begins pulling her into his life and circle. But the closer Priscilla gets, the stranger Elvis’s world reveals itself to be. Once she begins visiting him in Graceland, Priscilla is introduced to the singer’s inner sanctum of pill-popping, constant absences to film movies and his refusal to be more intimate. While she lives like a kept like a doll in the estate, the young girlfriend and soon bride endures the rumors of Elvis’s affairs and his overbearing sense of control.
Since her masterful debut “The Virgin Suicides” in 1999, Coppola has made unique films with female perspectives. The women in her movies can be either lively or reserved, but always operating within a world that attempts to confine or bend them. “Priscilla” is her second biopic, the last having been the grand “Marie Antoinette,” which was famously scored to ‘80s New Wave and Punk, while re-casting the doomed monarch as a sweet Austrian married off into the French monarchy, only to be consumed by a vast system of hierarchies, and eventually the French Revolution. “Priscilla” is set in a different, very American version of Versailles, that being Elvis’s hermetic Graceland. The source material here is Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me,” which was made into a 1988 limited series. The book remains one of the best first-hand accounts of Elvis’s personal life and revealed at the time now infamous, darker anecdotes of the King’s pill-fueled excesses.
But Coppola adds a darker edge to the material. “Priscilla” is almost her own contribution to the ongoing reckoning with gender and power dynamics in America. This isn’t a love story so much as a tale of grooming. Jacob Elordi, best known as the perturbed jock Nate in HBO’s “Euphoria,” plays Elvis like a man-child hiding a violent streak. Nobody says no to him and so he issues commands and demands to Priscilla. He keeps her nearby as a prop, never engaging in any kind of real conversation. Priscilla’s youth and naivety make the situation tragically confusing for her, since she sincerely likes the older man with the abusive reality taking its time to become painfully clear. When Elvis throws a fit when Priscilla corners him about his infidelities or throws a chair her way in a studio, the romanticized icon is stripped down to a frightening common male. Coppola’s approach is a sobering counter to last year’s exuberant, flashy “Elvis” by Baz Luhrmann. Unsurprisingly, the estate refused to allow the use of Presley’s music, even if the real Priscilla serves as an executive producer.
To not have Elvis’s music in the soundtrack still helps the film work as something beyond the mere retelling of a legend. Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars and his pop-rock band Phoenix provide the atmospheric score along with a few vintage needle drops, including a cover by the band of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus.” In many ways, we can focus on these characters as people and not pop culture. Cailee Spaeny gives her first career-defining performance, at 25 evoking a 14-year-old who is sharp but undergoes a challenging, formative experience. Through Elvis, Priscilla undergoes adult betrayals, manipulation and heartbreak. By posing her next to the towering Elordi as Elvis, Spaeny creates the startling effect of truly making us see Priscilla for what she was, a child. She becomes a conduit for Elvis’s own twisted, even creepy, complexes. He’s directed like a child by the offscreen Colonel Tom Parker and his finances are handled by his hawk-eyed dad, who makes sure Priscilla doesn’t bother the secretaries. Elvis’s infamous “Memphis Mafia” is always around, chomping cigars, spending the King’s money and inflating his ego.
Is Elvis then portrayed by Coppola as some kind of sexual predator? Not really. He’s more of a confused, selfish adult who doesn’t know what to even do with Priscilla. Having attained fame and fortune so young himself, the singer is always searching for meaning. He starts reading “Autobiography of a Yogi” (until Colonel Parker makes him stop) and gives Bible studies at home, which turn into flirtatious banter with his attractive, female “class” with Priscilla seething in the background. The couple tries LSD in a scene both dreamy and subtly funny. What begins to suffocate Priscilla by the time they are married with a daughter (the tragically-fated Lisa Marie) is that by her mid-20s, she realizes she’s a decoration at Graceland. She loves Elvis. He just doesn’t know how to value it in a world that has turned him into a god. Because this story is such a part of the American fabric, Coppola doesn’t use old biopic tricks where situations are endlessly explained or title cards fill in the holes. As in “Marie Antoinette,” this film has the illusion of witnessing history in real time. We’re there with Priscilla when she’s bored and abandoned or feeling confused because she can’t play on the front lawn with a puppy.
By now Sofia Coppola is cemented as one of those unique directors with a distinctive voice. She can dabble in other genres, as in the intense, Civil War era drama “The Beguiled,” but her signature is always palpable. Her camera never rushes and the editing builds an eloquent rhythm. We’re immersed in her stories, if we allow ourselves to be. Cinematographer Philipe Le Sourd bathes the film in warm tones subverted at times by the bright colors of wardrobe fit for a life that can have anything, except genuine affection. Viewers expecting a quick recap of a famous life will be caught by surprise. Though spread all around the screenplay by Coppola are the signs of how Elvis would doom himself, this is really an evocative study of Priscilla’s journey, which is one often experienced by many women, not always with the most famous man in the world. That is the key to how Coppola is viewing this life. It is the story of a young woman, told with human simplicity and empathy, stripped of all the rock ‘n’ roll.
“Priscilla” releases Oct. 27 in select theaters and expands Nov. 3 in theaters nationwide.