Moving Pictures
Nov 03, 2023, 06:27AM

Sofia Coppola's New Queen

Priscilla has a limited scope but a powerful punch, with a standout performance by Cailee Spaeny.

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Priscilla has the tone and focus that you’d expect from a biopic of Priscilla Presley directed by Sofia Coppola. It’s consumed with the typical themes and hobbyhorses explored by Coppola throughout her career, starting with the experience of a woman living in luxury, often while overshadowed by a powerful, larger-than-life man. That’s not necessarily bad, as Coppola has made many fine films based off of those hobbyhorses. Priscilla is largely successful, and I liked it more than last year’s bombastic, Baz Luhrmann Elvis biopic. But it’s not a comprehensive telling of Priscilla Presley’s life story.

Cailee Spaeny plays Priscilla, convincingly, from age 14-30, while Jacob Elordi is Elvis. Spaeny is 5’1” and Elordi is 6’5”, and Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd do all they can to emphasize the height differential, and the attendant power imbalance. In real life, Elvis was about eight inches taller than his wife.

The film, officially based on Presley’s memoir from 1985—with the still-living Priscilla serving as an executive producer—tells the story of Priscilla’s entire relationship with Elvis. It begins with their meeting on a military base in West Germany in 1962, when Elvis was 24 and already world-famous, and Priscilla just 14. The film states, as Priscilla’s memoir did, that the two didn’t have sex until their marriage in 1967, although biographers have questioned that. She’s brought to Graceland—where Priscilla would finish high school in Memphis—and eventually to L.A. and Vegas, as the two have a tumultuous relationship. We see Elvis lying, cheating, being manipulative and abusive, giving her pills and, on one occasion, throwing something at his wife.

Priscilla resembles the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, with Elvis in the Ike Turner role. Which is ironic, since Ike claimed to have met his fellow Mississippi native, pre-fame, and has been credited (falsely) with “discovering” the King. At any rate, this portrait of Elvis is going to be jarring to some, even if all of this was reported decades ago.

Spaeny’s performance is the best thing about the film. She’s believable as a young teenager, and also as an adult, and does some fantastic acting, often more with her face than her words. Elordi is fine, although he doesn’t make nearly as much of an impression as he does in the upcoming Saltburn. I’m not sure if it’s even fair to compare Elordi’s performance to Austin Butler’s in the Luhrmann movie, since that film involved a great deal of on-stage performing and Coppola’s barely entails any singing or dancing at all. (Priscilla, played by Olivia DeJonge, was nearly a non-entity in the Luhrmann film.)

Stylistically, the film’ outstanding across the board, featuring meticulous character detail and faithful recreations of the hair and costumes. There’s no Elvis music at all, although the soundtrack is loaded with period-appropriate tunes. The movie ends abruptly, and shows us nothing of Priscilla’s post-Elvis life, which has continued for over a half-century. I never expected to get a behind-the-scenes look at her roles in the Naked Gun movies, but when the marriage ends, so does the movie.

Priscilla is limited in the story it chooses to tell, but tells the hell out of the one it does.


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