PRISCILLA reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sophia Coppola
Stars: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin.
In 2022 Baz Luhrmann gave us Elvis, his flashy, flamboyant Oscar nominated biopic of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Now Sophia Coppola gives us a different take on Elvis in this superficial biopic that views his legend through the perspective of Priscilla Presley. Several of Coppola’s films such as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette have depicted female characters suffocating and trapped in their gilded cages, and this film gives her further rein to explore this theme through the prism of one of the great romances of the second half of the twentieth century. But while Priscilla has the usual glossy, visually sumptuous surface that we have come to expect from Coppola, it is also dramatically inert.
The film is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis And Me, which was co-written by Sandra Harmon, and it presents a contrast to the view of the legendary rocker as seen in films from John Carpenter and Luhrmann. Priscilla paints Elvis as a controlling, narcissistic, cruel and abusive womaniser. What Coppola serves up here is hardly a flattering portrait but rather more of an exploration of the dark side of celebrity and fame and privilege.
In 1959 the then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (played by Cailee Spaney, from tv series Mare Of Easttown, etc) met charismatic famous rock star Elvis Presley (Australian actor Jacod Elordi, recently seen in Saltburn), who was ten years her senior, at a party on the US military base at Wiesbaden in West Germany. He courted her over the objections of her stepfather (Ari Cohen), a military commander, who expressed concerns over the age difference and his celebrity status.
Years later he eventually married her and moved her into his sprawling 3.8 acre Graceland estate. The film follows her journey from initial teenaged infatuation with Elvis to disillusion as she was often isolated and left alone while he was in Hollywood shooting his movies. She also grew distressed over the various rumours of his affairs with his co-stars like Ann-Margret that were tabloid fodder. And she had that claustrophobic sense of being trapped and increasingly lonely, even while surrounded by his family and hangers-on in Graceland.
In this intimate biopic Coppola serves up many details about Elvis that weren’t included in Luhrmann’s film, including the amount of time he spent surrounded by his posse of male friends referred to as “the Memphis Mafia”, and his temperamental mood swings. Also, the film doesn’t really give us a sense of Elvis the performer. There are no Elvis songs on the soundtrack, and we never get to see him perform live. Due to the fact that the overseers of Elvis’s estate refused permission for Coppola and the producers to use his music in the film, the soundtrack is more contemporary and anachronistic. The film features some of the artists that influenced Elvis as well as music assembled by the group known as Phoenix, which is fronted by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars.
Both lead performances are spot on. Elordi gives us a darker take on Elvis here playing him more as a manipulative and narcissistic character, giving him a vaguely menacing air. Spaney does a superb job of bringing Priscilla Presley to life. She totally inhabits the character and depicts her naivete, her emotional journey with convincing passion, sensitivity and empathy, and she conveys a range of emotions.
As with most of Coppola’s films, which deal with female characters trapped and feeling suffocated in gilded cages, Priscilla has a glossy sumptuous surface and is a visual treat which she directs with restraint. Stacey Battat’s costumes are spectacular, while Cliona Furye’s and Jo-Ann MacNeil’s hair and makeup is also excellent. Tamara Deverell’s evocative production design, particularly for the interiors of Graceland is superb. Phillipe Le Sourd’s cinematography is rich and atmospheric. However, Coppola’s impressionistic take on the material and her typically languorous pacing keeps us at an emotional distance.