Based on the 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me” by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley who serves as the executive producer, Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” goes from dreamy to distressing as we watch the young teenage girl get swept off her feet by the King of Rock of Rock and Roll. Cailee Spaeny’s absorbing performance keeps the audience spellbound as she dispels the myths surrounding the iconic couple with Jacob Elordi as the Tupelo Tornado. While there are no Elvis songs in the film (which works to its advantage) the soundtrack features cleverly placed tunes by The Ramones, Spectrum, and Dan Deacon intermixed with an original score by the band Phoenix with additional music by Sons of Raphael.
There’s no better way to set the mood for a love story than the swoon-inducing “Venus” by Frankie Avalon which plays in the background while 14-year-old Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) sits in a military base commissary sipping on a soda. It’s the end of innocence for the high school freshman who’s approached by a couple, friends of Elvis, who invite her to a party to meet the famous singer who is also stationed on the West German base. It isn’t fair to call her naïve because at that age, who isn’t naïve? But it is fair to call the couple predators who convince Priscilla’s father Captain Beaulieu (Ari Cohen) to let the teen attend the adult soiree, obviously, he’s an Elvis fan.
Elvis wasn’t treated like every other private in the Army, he lived in a three-story home in Bad Nauheim, Germany where he entertained guests. Jacob Elordi’s lanky Elvis resembles an NBA player (he’s 6′ 5″) when opposite Spaeny (she’s 5′ 1″). The disparity in height creates a child-like illusion that helps 26-year-old Spaeny seem much younger. However, it also works to her disadvantage in the scenes where Priscilla, now in her late 20s and raising Lisa Marie, still resembles a young teenager. To be fair, Elordi as Elvis approaching 40 is still rather youthful and thin, just more layers of clothing and dark glasses.
The tone of “Priscilla” remains surreal once the story moves from courting to conforming as she leaves her parents to move into Graceland where she becomes a prisoner only leaving the estate to finish high school while Elvis is away shooting movies and having affairs with his costars including Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra.
Tim Post is perfectly cast as Vernon Presley who runs Graceland with an iron fist. When Priscilla, bored out of her mind, goes in to chat with the ladies in charge of the Elvis Fan Club, she’s chastised by Elvis’s father who points to the “Employees Only” sign on the door. Then when dropping her off at Catholic high school, Vernon sternly instructs Priscilla not to invite friends to Graceland where no strangers are allowed.
Priscilla roams the school halls keeping to herself thus becoming an outcast as her classmates whisper behind her back, labeling her as “the girl dating Elvis.” Her notoriety comes in handy in one scene where she convinces a student to help her cheat by offering her a chance to meet Elvis.
Back at Graceland, lonely Priscilla receives the occasional phone call from Elvis asking her to “keep the home fires burning” followed by a quick “Gotta go!” It’s no better when he returns home as Elvis is surrounded most of the time by his close friends and advisors known as the “Memphis Mafia.” They all go shopping with Priscilla who tries on several dresses while Elvis picks out what he likes. Elvis also decides what Priscilla wears and how she looks, “Black hair and more eye makeup” he instructs. It became Priscilla’s signature look. She even wore her famed double lashes to the hospital when she gave birth to Lisa Marie.
The lyrics to Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” sum up Priscilla’s life. “We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much, baby.” Coppola maintains a dark undercurrent all through “Priscilla” that rises to the surface as she begins popping pills at the insistence of Elvis whose nightstand resembles CVS. In one scene, Elvis gives her Placidyl which knocks her out for two days. His anger worsens as he becomes volatile as in the scene where he hurls a chair at Priscilla after asking her opinion about his song, “I don’t know if I like it” she comments.
The Priscilla Beaulieu Presley story is the perfect vehicle for Sofia Coppola whose female protagonists are usually caught in some kind of trap as Rashida Jones in “On The Rocks,” Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette,” or Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation.” Hmm, maybe Bill Murray should have been cast as Vernon (but Tim Post is ideal in the role).
Oscar-nominated production director Tamara Deverell scores again for the meticulous detail that went into recreating Graceland’s interior settings, pristine and clutterless, almost as if it’s already a tourist attraction. Elordi’s height means sets had to have higher ceilings and furniture was built taller than usual so the actor wouldn’t resemble a giant. It also helps to reestablish the illusion of Priscilla’s youthful appearance as she walks through the famous mansion appearing like Alice after landing in Wonderland.
There are spurts of energy in the film like the scene where Priscilla and Elvis go gambling in Vegas, or a pool party that reflects the happy times in the relationship, but for the most part “Priscilla” moves at a casual pace giving the viewer a sense of what life was like was like for the film’s protagonist as Coppola incorporates an abundance of extended scenes of Priscilla trying to pass the time by keeping herself entertained. Elvis gifts her a puppy to help, but when she plays with the dog on the front lawn, an Elvis family member criticizes her for making a spectacle out of herself by giving Elvis fans positioned outside the famous gates something to look at.
Despite the differences in height, Spaeny and Elordi deliver memorable performances as the famous couple, leaving no room for distractions as we become absorbed by these characters that most of us know a little about based on mythology. Despite Priscilla living with Elvis as a teenager in high school, the film shows, as stated in Priscilla’s memoir, how the couple never had sex until they were married. She was ready but he wasn’t besides Elvis was having so many affairs he was getting all the action he wanted on the side.
Coppola gives us the ultimate anti-Elvis film, not in a way that it makes the iconic musician a villain but in the sense that the film’s focus never deviates from Priscilla’s point of view. No flashy Elvis performances or scenes of his affairs. Late in the film as Elvis and Priscilla are literally leading separate lives there is a scene where Priscilla passes the time by taking karate lessons from instructor Mike Stone (Evan Annisette) with whom she had an affair, but Coppola doesn’t get involved in the details keeping the focus on Priscilla and Elvis as their marriage disintegrates.
It’s a blessing in disguise that Coppola couldn’t get the rights to any Elvis music. The workaround includes instrumentals of songs that inspired some of The King’s hits. The film is much better without any of those memorable chart toppers as music supervisor Randall Poster, with the help of Coppola’s husband and Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars, whose band scored the film, selects an eclectic selection of songs perfectly arranged by Coppola to highlight several significant moments in the film.
Dan Deacon’s EDM track “The Crystal Cat” is signature Coppola as the fast-paced energetic number highlights Priscilla’s transformation as she changes her appearance to suit Elvis. Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in the final chapter is brilliant, and my favorite “How You Satisfy Me” by Spectrum with its trippy synths and distorted vocals is timed perfectly to Priscilla’s Alice-like venture into the rabbit hole known as Elvis Presley’s world.
“Priscilla” is a bold and fearless deep dive worthy of Oscar recognition as the woman whose life in the shadows of the King of Rock and Roll moves to the forefront switching places with her famous husband. It’s a story perfectly fit for writer-director Sofia Coppola.
Now showing in theaters