THE STORY – When teenager Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley at a party, the man who’s already a meteoric rock ‘n’ roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, and a gentle best friend.
THE CAST – Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi & Dagmara Domińczyk
THE TEAM – Sofia Coppola (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
It’s always a humorous observation when two films dealing with a similar subject matter are released within a concise time frame. This situation is applicable to both huge studio blockbusters and independent productions. Something in the air seems to capture the attention of artists simultaneously, and it can often be looked at as an interesting experiment to see what is ultimately chosen to be emphasized. Last year, Baz Luhrmann delivered “Elvis,” a splashy and hyperkinetic biopic indulging in his grandiose sensibilities and familiar subgenre tropes. This year, Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” could be seen as nearly the opposite perspective surrounding the subject. From the tone and storytelling to even the film’s name, there is an intention to set this film apart from what many might expect. This is a commendable objective because it results in a beautifully rendered piece.
As one would imagine, the film takes a look into the relationship between Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), with a keen focus on the former’s viewpoint. First introduced to him while her family was in Germany, Elvis takes a keen interest in the fourteen-year-old, who becomes immediately smitten. Their courtship is a long process, but the bond between them strengthens. Despite some concerns from her family, Priscilla is eventually whisked off to Graceland and becomes engulfed in the fanciful world. However, the luster soon wears off once it becomes clear to Priscilla that her life has been permanently altered. The freedoms she once had are now stripped away to better fit the image of the superstar. Additionally, his demanding preferences and public affairs cause strain in the relationship. Priscilla endures as much as possible before eventually leaving him in 1972, evolving into a changed person from their first interaction.
Isolation is a consistent theme in Coppola’s filmography. All of her works deal with characters trapped and closed off in some capacity to others around them, desperately trying to break free from their chains and achieve some level of self-actualization. It makes for the perfect subject matter to explore here. There’s an elegance in the way she introduces this relationship, one that definitely sees the inappropriate undercurrent but also the genuine love and affection that was also present. Her frame captures the bliss that was there in the beginning and the process by which that was slowly eroded over time. Such time passages are showcased in striking montages (yet another trope that is successfully subverted that other filmmakers should take note of), with each passing season bringing a new clarity to this festering situation. Coppola crafts a portrait that is both tender and heartbreaking, all within a viewpoint that is crashing against the shattering fairy tale.
It’s such a joy to discover just how full of vibrant detail Coppola brings to this environment. This Graceland may not seem as exuberant as previous depictions, but there is a delicate flamboyance that still feels impressive. It’s an opulence that infects Priscilla, just as the insistent demands that her appearance become more reliable on heavy makeup. Her action to apply eyeliner and eyelashes right before leaving for the hospital to deliver her child speaks volumes to the expectations that were placed upon her. It is one of many moments emphasizing what she was meant to endure. One also sees that through the eclectic music choices that reference her state of mind, a landscape that may be absent of Elvis classics but is not missed. The only aspect of the soundtrack that is slightly off is the handful of modern titles that play. It’s an intriguing concept, but one not utilized consistently enough to feel justified with the other period-appropriate pop songs.
What makes Coppola’s efforts all the more special is how much care is given to the characters at the center. As a literal child, Priscilla has a naivety about herself, but her emotions are not tossed aside as girlish fantasies. The life she wants to build with Elvis is an honest truth for herself, and the tone never dismisses that reverence. The initial meeting between them has an authentic care and affection, one that changes into a darker force once she is more under his direct control. Elvis himself is not presented as a man with the best intentions but one who aimed to govern the terms of their exchange. One would argue that he’s given more grace than expected, but it’s another example of how Coppola’s storytelling has such a commanding confidence in guiding one through this nuanced conversation.
Her efforts with this material, however, are not entirely perfect. While the foundation of the narrative is compelling, it does entertain some tangents that don’t provide much use outside of padding the runtime and slowing the momentum. There’s an extensive portion that shows Elvis’s proclivity to religious themes, and it’s a thread that doesn’t hold much importance in the overall story. A smaller example is a drug-tripping scene that, while interestingly filmed, struggles to add more to her drug abuse that was already established. Fortunately, these elements are not pervasive, but they grind the pacing to a halt enough times to be a significant detriment.
At the center of it all, it is Spaeny’s performance that carries this enterprise. Every moment she is on screen is one that fosters an instant connection to her plight. Her assurance in pursuing this goal is found in her joyous and uplifting attitude, and when the haze of reality sets in, the tragedy reveals itself in her solemn gazes. There is hardly a histrionic outburst from her, which is what makes her portrayal so affecting. The sadness that envelopes her is always present, and she is able to display the nuance with such a complex mentality. She is an outstanding central figure who creates an emotionally effective turn. Elordi isn’t meant to be nearly as impactful, but his Elvis is one that still has a grounded charm that makes it believable to be taken by. When his rage surfaces later, it also comes from an authentic place, thereby strengthening the conflict. But it’s mostly there to elevate the fantastic work Spaeny is providing.
It is quite a feat that “Priscilla” can convey so much about this well-publicized romance without catering to anything that is sensationalized. Even the age gap is a facet that is pursued with a gentle handling, mainly because it speaks so earnestly to the vantage point of a young woman who goes through a tumultuous journey of confidence. Sofia Coppola has a complete understanding of this mentality, and she constructs an enthralling presentation that has love and disappointment felt in a realistic manner. All of this succeeds even better with Spaeny’s magnificent performance. This is not merely the better of the two films concerning certain factors in Elvis Presley’s life. It’s one of the best films Coppola has made yet.