If the Hollywood dream factory is about myth-making, a fraction of it is about unraveling those myths through truth-telling. Attentively adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” writer-director Sofia Coppola’s compassionate, dreamy and lushly designed “Priscilla” is a little bit of both of those dueling Hollywoods.
It’s a rare cinematic opportunity to experience the notably private, known but unknowable Priscilla’s own truthful side of the story, and to see her stormy relationship with the King of Rock and Roll through her heavily-lined and faux-lashed eyes. It’s also a sumptuous bolstering of the Presley myth, a name with endless legends and perspectives attached to it.
Led by a soul-piercingly poignant Cailee Spaeny portraying the title role between the ages of 14 and 24, and a jaw-dropping Jacob Elordi (of “Saltburn”), giving Austin Butler a run for his money as Elvis, “Priscilla” feels richer and all the more resonant thanks to that dichotomy. After all, the historically famous, even fiercely shielded legends like Priscilla Presley, can’t escape their perpetual, generation-spanning fame, so they might as well try and steer the ship themselves, from their own lens.
Elevating that dual appeal is the film’s fortuitous timing. It feels like a luxurious gift to have Coppola’s “Priscilla” right now, so soon after Baz Luhrmann’s opulent “Elvis”—an unwavering, characteristically bling-y and sometimes horror-adjacent biopic, mostly on the deadly grip Colonel Tom Parker had on Elvis.
“Priscilla” is the exact opposite of “Elvis,” like a gentle but clear-eyed B-side to Luhrmann’s hard-bitten A. Indeed, Coppola’s “Priscilla” favors soft pastels, leaves the “Colonel” off the screen (although we hear his name countless times), mostly does away with the cliched shots of screaming Elvis fans (save for a few small moments) and omits Elvis’ music (except some piano tingling of “Love Me Tender”) in favor of other ballads from the period and some superbly chosen anachronistic needle drops like “Crimson and Clover” to set the mood.
The result is a meditative and thoughtfully feminine Sofia Coppola movie through and through—a sad, bored and confused young woman of certain privileges trying to make sense of her circumstances and, maybe, even coming of age.
It was perhaps inevitable to use the p-word (as in, privilege) eventually when talking about a movie made by Sofia Coppola, the famous Hollywood nepo baby. Truth be told, it feels as boring to continue bringing up Coppola’s privileged background as it is to point out the abundant social and economic access her characters often have. “That’s all she knows,” has always been the common and grating complaint about her, an accusation her similarly blessed (but not as legitimately talented) male counterparts are often spared from.
So let’s instead talk about Coppola’s particular life experiences in the context of “Priscilla”—not from the perspective of privilege, but from understanding and empathy. Coppola seems like the perfect storyteller to grasp what it must have been like for Priscilla to adore and admire a much respected and mythicized man at the age of 14, and to be both enabled and shadowed by his luminous legacy.
That’s Priscilla’s experience, to be exact. It’s beguiling to the prim and proper young girl, the daughter of a soldier stationed in Germany, when she receives an invitation to the home of Elvis, also serving in the same location in 1959. The wide-eyed innocence of Spaeny’s Priscilla quickly draws the attention of Elvis, whose deep, velvety voice and enchanting gaze Elordi flawlessly captures. A shy and homesick man devoted to his grandmother and grieving his mom, Elvis proves to be far from the famed superstar Priscilla knows.
She feels a sense of pure and innocent devotion towards him at once, especially when the broken, soft-spoken Elvis opens up about his deepest secrets and fears. And despite Priscilla’s concerned parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk playing an underwritten pair), the duo keeps seeing each other, strengthening their bond with each passing day.
Even without any sex involved—apparently the couple didn’t consummate their union until their wedding night years later—theirs is a deeply inappropriate relationship between a child and a grown man in a position of power. But instead of leaning into the dismissive “it was a different time” demeanor to legitimize their togetherness, Coppola tries to honor Priscilla’s story as it really unfolded.
There are many sweet, loving and cozy aspects of the couple’s courtship, but some troubling ones, too, that morph into isolation, control and loneliness. Those darker shades surface when Priscilla finally convinces her parents to let her move into Graceland—going to Catholic school by day, enriching Elvis’ world by night. Elvis’ gift upon her arrival—a sweet little dog waiting for his new playmate—grimly says it all about what Priscilla should expect at Graceland: not much other than the company of her new four-legged friend and a pill or two she gets too comfortable popping.
Coppola regular Stacey Battat’s costumes journey through the ’60s and early ’70s—from glamorous gowns, mini dresses and block heels to apt schoolgirl outfits—and are stunning. So is Graceland’s rendering with its vast grounds and chambers that become Priscilla’s own Versailles. But beauty and glamor alone don’t fulfill her cravings of the love, lust and attention from the man she adores, nor do they make his frequent absences and all the cruel tabloids about Elvis and his beautiful co-stars any more palatable.
Coppola smartly and sharply keeps her focus on the young Priscilla through it all. We only see what she sees and process what she processes during Elvis’ dark episodes when she is told how to dress, how to wear her hair and make-up, and the limits to her growing assertiveness, with a couple of instances turning physically threatening.
In keeping with the story’s trajectory, Phillippe Le Sourd’s airy lens turns claustrophobic, especially after the couple’s wedding and the rapid birth of Lisa Marie (who tragically passed away just months ago, due to small bowel obstruction). But that’s also where Coppola starts losing the rhythm of her movie, often making staccato cuts, rushing from one event to the next at a pace that stands in sharp contrast to the coherence and patience we’ve witnessed in the earlier acts.
“Priscilla” still feels like a graceful feat though, both amid the much-mythicized Elvis oeuvre and Coppola’s own filmography of women in search of their voice and agency. As Priscilla decisively drives away from Elvis in the end with her beehive gone and style simplified, we see someone much bigger than a myth. We see a human being.