‘Priscilla’ Review: Trouble With The King

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Priscilla, Sofia Coppola's introspective biopic focused on the life of Priscilla Presley and her marriage to Elvis.
User Rating: 8

There’s something to be said about how upcoming Sofia Coppola projects tend to ring entirely true to her style as a filmmaker. Much of that, naturally, has to do with her taking on stories that have a throughline in terms of their general themes and placing them behind a female point of view. That doesn’t mean her take on Priscilla was going to yield obvious results, but beyond simply being a biopic focused on the life of Priscilla Presley, one can see how this film fits into Coppola’s filmography. The film is well acted, carefully considered in terms of how it is shot and positions its characters, and a fine counter to other stories centered around Elvis and life in Graceland.

Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me,” the film tracks the life of Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) from when she was a high school Freshman living on a U.S. Army base in West Germany up to adulthood, where she would eventually leave her husband, the King of Rock and Roll. Leading up to this eventuality, however, we see the humble beginnings of the relationship between a 14-year-old girl and the 24-year-old musician, where Priscilla’s starry-eyed crush turns into true love. Of course, as time passes, a harsher reality also presents itself.

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Given that this is another instance where a film must dare to present an alternate viewpoint on a real-life figure who is so renowned for their position in pop culture history, perhaps it’s important to talk about the Elvis of it all first. Portrayed by Jacob Elordi, whose 6’ 5” frame has positioned him to constantly look like the one jealous boyfriend you never want to mess with, it’s an essential performance that isn’t daring to go big in the way Austin Butler so successfully accomplished in Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy Elvis biopic from 2022. No, with Elordi, the only real attempt to emulate the King’s image is with the Memphis accent. Otherwise, time spent with Elvis gives way to speculation on his more manipulative and demanding side, let alone the role their age difference played.

Now granted, this is the late 50s/60s, when times were somewhat different, and this film rides a line as far as what Elvis and Priscilla got up to before their eventual marriage. The larger focus is how this man would treat something he considered a prized possession. Being one of the biggest stars on the planet, Elvis was not immune to the charms of a certain kind of lifestyle. Yet, he’s also quite demanding of how Priscilla acts, dresses, and speaks to him. Coppola, who adapted the memoir for this film, is going off what was written about, sure, but this screenplay certainly wants to investigate the nature of the love shared between the two and the unpleasant aspects that came with it.

Of course, the true focus is on Spaeny’s portrayal of Priscilla. At 5’ 1”, there’s a visual indicator of the power dynamic at play, and it becomes fascinating to see how this character finds a way to adapt to the life of being a celebrity wife and style icon of the time. That means dealing with an exacting husband and effectively showing that she’s never losing her inner strength, regardless of how she’s treated. It makes for a compelling performance built on far more than just her famous looks and hairdos. Even with such soft-spokenness, there’s never a lack of clarity in who is driving this film.

All of this works out well for Coppola, who takes a very linear story structure and embeds it within a period setting that allows the details to shine without being presented in an overly dazzling manner. Philippe Le Sourd serves as cinematographer, and the use of soft lighting and other choices to keep the focus where needed brings a fitting life to Graceland through the eyes of Priscilla. With a lack of Elvis Presley music on the soundtrack, Coppola once again utilizes work from the band Phoenix and original music by Sons of Raphael to help enclose the film in an atmosphere that rides the line between contemporary and fitting for the era. All these elements do well to further the efforts of depicting a specific moment in time through a particular point of view.

Because of all these choices, the ideas surrounding why this film needs to present Priscilla and Elvis this way become clear. This is another Coppola film focused on someone who is an outsider in various ways and would only become more alienated by inhabiting a life thrust upon her. Even as we watch a woman with all the resources in the world indulge in shopping, hair-dyeing, and nail painting, it’s not hard to see how she could feel entirely alone. As the film carries on and lets us observe the elaborate production design, it’s not surprising to have the film find ways to upset what’s going on with what lies beneath the surface.

Priscilla is another elegantly made drama from Coppola, with a significant focus on channeling the introspection of its lead character. The fact that it must also serve as a take on Elvis should ideally position the film as an addition to his legacy rather than just a one-sided depiction. More importantly, however, taking this famous relationship and showing it as a story about a woman finding herself despite all the constraints that come with such a fabulous lifestyle makes for a compelling journey fit for a filmmaker who continues to challenge herself. And if that means depicting what else comes with burning love, so be it.

Priscilla is now playing in theaters.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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