To the world, Priscilla Presley’s life seemed a fairy tale. Like Cinderella, she was a kind-hearted common girl plucked from obscurity to be a princess — but not by a prim, sexless prince. She was chosen by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, to live in his palace, surrounded by luxury, draped in the finest clothes, and peppered with kisses and sweet talk from the sexiest man alive. With Priscilla, writer/director Sofia Coppola takes us behind the glittery gates of Graceland to reveal the view from the inside of its gilded cage.
From this vantage point, it’s easy to see how a very young girl got swept up in the King’s world of swinging music, Southern charms, pill popping, and sex appeal. But Coppola also reveals how this fairy tale festered into a story about a princess trapped in a tower, her only love turned tyrant.
Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, with Presley herself onboard as executive producer, Priscilla is a radiant, empathetic, and yet not naive look at the first love that caught the whole world’s attention — but should not have sparked envy.
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Priscilla is Sofia Coppola playing to her greatest love.
Credit: Sabrina Lantos
Since her short film “Lick the Stars” in 1998, Sofia Coppola has ardently but frankly showcased the emotional messiness of white girlhood. The Virgin Suicides was enraptured with the enigmatic and doomed Lisbon sisters. Lost in Translation followed an American girl lost in Tokyo, while Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring begged empathy for maligned young women who might be accused of loving fashion to a fault. Even Confederate women got a space to exercise their deepest desires and wrath in Coppola’s 2017 adaptation of The Beguiled. Now, she looks to the girl whose story has been lost amid the sequins, scandals, and untimely death of her ultra-famous husband.
Priscilla, whether intending to or not, functions as a fascinating sibling to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which painted the titular rock star’s story as a tragedy, in which a wide-eyed dreamer fell for the manipulations of a scheming older man — Colonel Tom Parker. Hilariously, Elvis’s wily villain is only name-dropped in Priscilla, which seems fair. In Luhrmann’s movie, she is little more than a chaste plot point, treated as proof that behind all the hip-wiggling swagger, Presley was a prince at his core. But Coppola’s movie turns the tables, presenting Elvis instead as a manipulative man who sought out a relationship with a 14-year-old girl and meticulously exerted control until she was firmly under his thumb.
For grown-ups, the red flags might be blazing from the start, as Elvis singles Priscilla out at a house party and invites her up to his room — after learning she’s only in ninth grade. However, Coppola commits to Priscilla’s perspective, so while the warning signs are clear, so too is the girl’s emotional reasoning. A virtue and vice of white girlhood is the heady cocktail of hormones and hubris that convinces us that we understand the world, even as it is rife with dangers that feed on our naivete. While Priscilla’s parents try to warn her about this 24-year-old pursuing a high school freshman, she insists they don’t know him like she does. And we, bound to her side in moments of teen angst and earnest lust, see him as she does.
Jacob Elordi is astounding as Elvis Presley.
Credit: Philippe Le Sourd
The Euphoria star who is dropping jaws with the lusty and wickedly funny thriller Saltburn creates an Elvis of many faces. The flashy performer persona is the most minor of elements here, as Elvis’s concerts are shot mostly in silhouette, creating a dynamic image but keeping him at a distance. As this film is not about him, Coppola purposefully shies away from putting his famous voice on her soundtrack, though a couple of instrumentals of some Presley hits creep in, perhaps hinting at the enveloping influence he has on Priscilla.
Where Elordi really shines is in the troubling descent from dashing suitor to snarling husband. At the start, his body swings with casual confidence, inviting Priscilla and us to leer as he strides to a piano to play a song. He laughs brightly but sheepishly pursues a kiss. He’s a man’s man, cracking wise with his boys and firing guns for fun. But there’s a dark streak that emerges anytime he and Priscilla don’t see eye-to-eye.
Elordi explodes into violent outbursts. Elvis’s signature Southern purr booms abruptly into a bark, only to shrink back to sweetness and cajoling as he reaches for “Cilla” and promises he’d never really harm her. It’s a Hyde to Jekyll transformation that happens frighteningly fast, but we can easily understand how this teenager repeatedly overlooked such events, finding solace in the avalanche of tenderness that follows.
Cailee Spaeny delivers a profound performance as Priscilla.
Credit: Sabrina Lantos
The Craft: Legacy actress has a challenge in building a character who can command attention even when an Elvis is in the building. Coppola’s script is firmly grounded in Priscilla’s perspective, giving us not only insights into her feelings for Elvis in dialogue but also close-ups that clearly showcase those first intoxicating moments of desire. When he sings at the piano, she gasps, slightly awed by his allure; her hands sit primly in her lap but are clasped hard. It’s a subtle reaction, but one that signals the electricity pulsing through her. When he touches her thigh, the excitement that flushes her face is contagious.
Yet Spaeny has much more to play than crushing teen girl, as she portrays Priscilla from age 14 to 27. Coppola shows us this journey chronologically but in waves, which sometimes prove comical. For instance, Priscilla’s parents repeatedly refuse to let her see this fully grown man, but each time she pleads amid their rebukes, the film fades to her back in a car, headed to him. The resolution of these arguments are skipped, as if their results were inevitable. These backseat close-ups remind us that she is not in the driver’s seat of this journey, but at this point happy to be on the ride. As the road gets rockier, Spaeny’s eyes shift from bright to guarded. Her physicality moves from a youthful awkwardness to a hardened stride.
While some filmmakers might use this dramatic arc to deliver a splashy emotional climax, wet with sobs and quotable pronouncements of self-empowerment and/or resentment, Coppola rejects such Hollywood catharsis. Instead, Priscilla’s growth is shown through subtle interactions that begin to expand beyond the reach of Graceland. Her evolution is expressed as much through Spaeny’s measured performance as by the glorious costume, hair, and makeup designs — courtesy of Stacy Battat, Cliona Furey, and Jo-Ann MacNeil.
Priscilla uses fashion to speak volumes.
Credit: Sabrina Lantos
In female-fronted films, what a heroine wears often carries a great deal of meaning. In Priscilla, Coppola draws our attention to the purpose of her protagonist’s clothes with one intentionally cringe-inducing Elvis scene.
He’s taken her shopping, a cool move from the rich, older boyfriend. But he’s brought his boys, who hoot and holler in approval as she tries on each look for her man. However, Elvis is not bursting with praise. Every outfit is a chance for him to guide his girl into looking like he likes. He likes blue on her. He thinks patterns are for big women, not his petite princess. He doesn’t like brown. “It reminds me of the army,” he sneers as Cilla shows off a gorgeous gold brocade gown. From here, Priscilla’s looks dramatically shift from schoolgirl preppiness and pale pinks to baby blue mini-dresses. But as she comes into her own, as an individual not just a woman, she begins to explore outside this uniform — sparking a fight when she comes home in a flowing orange-and-brown patterned dress.
Likewise, Elvis’s notes on how she should do her hair and wear her makeup reflect the state of their relationship. She religiously puts on a winged liner and big fake lashes, creating a performance of femininity that appeases him — even as she’s rushing to the hospital to give birth to their child. But as they grow apart, her hair falls from that black-dyed beehive to a more natural brunette look of long locks down her shoulders. Her dramatic eyeliner slides away, perhaps because she’s too tired of crying it off. And a new face for Priscilla speaks to a new chapter in her life, one that Coppola curiously leaves to the viewer’s imagination.
As she rejects a showy climax, Coppola also rebuffs the standards of Hollywood biopics. No title cards will give you a swift catch-up on the next 50 years (and counting) of Priscilla Presley’s life. No real-life photos will pop up over the end credits as a blatant FYC campaign for the production team. And no bombastic goodbye will be unfurled that might urge audiences to sympathize more with her famous warden. It’s an ending that is sure to be unsatisfying to some, and maybe even infuriating. But from the start, Coppola’s arc for Priscilla is one of first love, and where her film ends is where this chapter of Priscilla Presley’s life comes firmly to a close.
All told, Sofia Coppola has spun a sensational film rich in romance, but not lost in the pitfall of glamorizing its celebrity couple. While the love story here is not an aspirational one, Coppola’s crafting of the central character invites audiences into the experience to understand deeply how it felt to fall in love with Elvis, and then to feel repeatedly failed by him. Luxurious in visual storytelling of kitsch, glamor, and girliness, Coppola paints Priscilla’s world with all the attention to detail that the young girl does her fingernails. Every stroke matters and pays off, creating a glossy but not glossed-over coming-of-age tale of love, loss, and moving on.
Priscilla was reviewed out of its North American Premiere at New York Film Festival 2023. The movie opens in theaters Nov. 3.