It’s almost inevitable that Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla will draw comparisons to last year’s Elvis. While Baz Luhrmann’s biopic somewhat diminished Priscilla’s role in Elvis’ life, Coppola’s film rectifies this by placing her in the spotlight as the central character, following Priscilla’s journey into adulthood as she steps into the world of Graceland, providing a fresh perspective on an iconic woman that had previously remained untold on the silver screen.
Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me”, Priscilla follows her journey from teenage girl to young woman trapped in a gilded cage. When ninth-grader Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) meets Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) at a party in West Germany, where her family is stationed, they form a close bond despite their age difference. Three years later, Priscilla would move into Graceland.
However, Priscilla is unprepared for the challenges of living with a rock ‘n’ roll legend. Isolated from her friends and family, she often feels ignored and trapped. She has no friends of her own and is only ever surrounded by Elvis’s entourage. The King of Rock ‘n Roll is often controlling and possessive, expecting her to conform to his image of the perfect wife. As his fame grows, his personal struggles, including drug addiction, put immense pressure on their marriage. Priscilla begins to assert herself and push back against Elvis’s control, ultimately leading to a difficult decision: to leave him and start a new life.
While effectively dismantling the image of Elvis as a larger-than-life hero, the movie offers little room for depth. It had the potential to be a story about a young girl groomed by the world’s most famous rock star and subjected to a life devoid of independence or agency. Her story was largely untold, providing an opportunity to delve deep into the psyche of a woman trapped in what appeared to be a glamorous marriage. However, Priscilla herself remains somewhat mysterious. We empathize as we watch her endure one distressing situation after another, but never fully understand her.
Compared to Sofia Coppola’s other visually rich and aesthetically pleasing films, Priscilla takes a more straightforward approach to capturing the coming-of-age experience. While still featuring her signature close-ups and a focus on the details of a young woman’s life, it falls short of the dreamy and opulent aesthetics found in her previous works like “The Virgin Suicides,” “The Bling Ring,” or “Marie Antoinette.” The overall visual style in “Priscilla” remains muted, deviating from the vibrant and captivating aesthetics typically associated with Coppola’s filmography. In my opinion, it doesn’t measure up to her other works in terms of aesthetics.
Despite the film’s narrative shortcomings, Cailee Spaeny (On the Basis of Sex), who looks every bit the part of Priscilla, and Jacob Elordi (Euphoria) deliver strong performances. Spaeny’s transformation into Priscilla Presley is noteworthy; while it shouldn’t be the primary focus of a biopic, it’s always remarkable to witness an actor morph into someone as aesthetically iconic as Priscilla. Her small frame and youthful face further emphasize that this girl is far too young to be married with a child, serving as a vivid reminder that she’s still a child herself.
However, it’s worth noting that Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis, while charismatic, doesn’t quite reach the same level as Austin Butler’s Oscar-nominated turn in Luhrmann’s film. While Elordi’s performance highlights Elvis’s struggles, it’s not as transformative as what Butler accomplished. Still, the chemistry between Spaeny and Elordi on screen is palpable, making their on-screen relationship believable and engaging.
Priscilla left me with a sense of mixed emotions. It’s a decent addition to the Elvis cinematic canon, Cailee Spaeny delivers a captivating performance, and the film successfully challenges our decades-old image of Elvis, shedding light on the darker facets of his relationship with Priscilla. It’s also a rare example of a film reacting to another, cleverly using its parallels to last year’s Elvis to illustrate how movies can twist the truth based on perspective. However, Coppola’s narrative structure is a series of disjointed scenes showcasing both the best and worst of their 13-year journey. Coupled with the absence of her signature aesthetic, this left me with a sense of disappointment.