Priscilla review: An original take on one of showbiz’s most iconic relationships
Sofia Coppola's new film about Priscilla Presley – which has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival – is one of the most engaging of her career.
After Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 Oscar-nominee Elvis, his knee-trembling, decibel-smashing take on the life of Elvis Presley, now it’s the turn of fellow filmmaker Sofia Coppola. Except Priscilla is not a film about Elvis, of course, but Priscilla Beaulieu, the teenager who captured the heart of the king of rock’n’roll.
That makes it sound swoon-inducing and romantic, and for the first act, it is. They meet in 1959, when Priscilla is living with her parents on a U.S. army base in West Germany. She’s in her mid-teens and “just a baby”, as Elvis puts it, when they’re introduced. Undergoing his military service, he lost his “mama” a year earlier and wants to meet people from back home.
Playing Priscilla is Cailee Spaeny, who brilliantly traverses the decade or so that the film covers, as Elvis convinces her (and her doubting parents) to come to Tennessee and finish her schooling. Scripted by Coppola, the film’s source is Priscilla Presley’s own memoir, Elvis and Me, so you can imagine the details are spot-on.
Like arriving at Graceland, Elvis’s famed Memphis home, to find a stuffed tiger in the bedroom and a puppy waiting for her in a pen, to keep her company while he’s on yet another film shoot. “She’s like a little girl,” comments one bitchy onlooker, and the film truly amps up her naïveté.
Opposite Spaeny, Euphoria star Jacob Elordi plays Elvis. He captures the singer’s distinct Southern drawl with ease, put to good use in one early scene where Priscilla glimpses him at a party, where he’s singing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin' On, even catching a glass that falls from the piano as he finishes the song.
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True, he doesn’t get the physical workout that Austin Butler got in Luhrmann’s film, although we do see a glimpse of him performing the famed ’68 Comeback Special, all in black leather, and taking a bow in the Las Vegas residency, white cape and all.
Although the film isn’t quite as interior as you might hope, it’s still very much from Priscilla’s perspective. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t really matter that the Presley estate didn’t license his music here, beyond a blast of Guitar Man and the strains of Love Me Tender.
Instead, much in the way Coppola approached her 2006 biopic Marie Antoinette, we get unusual, anachronistic choices like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ cover of Crimson and Clover, a song the director recently used in a commercial tribute to Suntory whiskey starring Keanu Reeves.
Priscilla shows very capably how the first flush of romance eventually withers. Initially, Priscilla must learn to cope with rumours that swirl around her beau, as the media prints pictures of him with Hollywood starlets, all part of the industry spin of the ’50s and ’60s. But it becomes uglier, as Elvis’s infamous reliance on prescription pills rears its head, unsurprisingly.
Coppola also portrays Elvis as having a temper – at one point, throwing furniture inches from her head. Then there’s the implication of infidelity and also sexual abuse as the film’s Elvis forcefully grabs her in the bedroom.
This final third is arguably the film’s least successful segment, slightly lacking the fireworks as Priscilla goes through her “conscious uncoupling”, as Gwyneth Paltrow might say. But for all that, this is one of the most engaging films of Coppola’s career, truly putting her own stamp on one of showbiz’s most iconic relationships. The camera deliciously lingers over details, from Elvis paraphernalia to the chintz of Graceland, emphasising what a surreal world Priscilla was thrown into.
In the end, she finds her own way out of this disturbing, dizzying maze, departing his Las Vegas hotel suite, while Elvis is very much left in the building.
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