In 1960, a fourteen year-old girl from Texas was living a pretty boring life in Germany where her stepfather, a U.S. Air Force Captain, was stationed when enlisted man Terry West (Luke Humphrey) asks her if she likes Elvis Presley. As it turns out, Terry is a friend of the King of Rock ‘n Roll’s and offers to take her to a party at his home. He also steps in to convince her parents that everything is above board and they finally relent. From that moment on, nothing was ever the same for “Priscilla.”
Laura's Review: B+
Writer/director Sofia Coppola adapts Priscilla Presley’s memoir in fleeting takes, like flashes of memory which build into an interior portrait of a marriage unseen despite the continual glare of global media. What we come away with is the sense of a young girl dazzled by her sudden introduction to the inner circle of a superstar whose vulnerable confidences empowered her while his patriarchal expectations imprisoned her.
Coppola has crafted a beautiful impression of Priscilla Presley’s experience, a shy young girl thrust onto a pedestal, treated with a courtliness which was gradually revealed as control, a playmate discarded into ‘home fires’ motherhood. It was that courtliness that convinced Priscilla’s mother Anne (Dagmara Dominczyk, HBO's 'Succession') and her stepfather Captain Beaulieu (Ari Cohen) to move into Graceland at the age of seventeen, although her early introduction to pills to stay awake and then sleep would have probably alarmed them. But, according to Priscilla at least, although she slept with Elvis, he refused to have sex with her until their wedding in 1967.
There is something almost Scientology-like about Priscilla’s absorption into Elvis’s life, Terry recruiting her for an ‘audition,’ Elvis’s father Vernon (Tim Post) acting as a purse string holding chaperone, the nuns at Immaculate Conception guiding her education as other students whispered. ‘I can’t believe she dyed her hair,’ says one, Priscilla’s dark brown hair turned black, her eye makeup accentuated per Elvis’s instruction. She was indulged with shopping expeditions when he came home from movie sets, but Elvis only bought what he liked. And when Elvis was away, Priscilla was bored to tears confined within Graceland, even ordered off the front lawn while playing with her dog so as not to be seen by those crowding around its gates. Then there were the fan magazines which informed her of Elvis’ dalliances with costars like Ann Margaret…
Everything changed with the arrival of Lisa Marie, signaled immediately by Priscilla’s black bouffant transitioning into long brown hair. While Elvis appears in a family photo shoot he doesn’t in family life, engulfed in his destructive Vegas residency. Priscilla begins to forge her own path, staying in L.A. ‘with the girls’ where she began a relationship with her karate instructor Mike Stone (Evan Annisette), tacitly acknowledged by the film.
Cailee Spaeny’s (HBO's 'Mare of Easttown') breakout role earned her a Best Actress nod in Venice and she navigates Priscilla’s decade in Elvis’s orbit well, growing from shy schoolgirl to a woman confident enough to walk away despite heartbreak. And while ‘Euphoria’s’ Jacob Elordi doesn’t really resemble Elvis, he gets the voice and mannerisms so right that’s quickly forgotten. In addition to those already mentioned, support includes Lynne Griffin ("Black Christmas," "Strange Brew") as Elvis’s grandmother and Olivia Barrett as his cook Alberta, both Graceland mainstays providing Elvis’s required ‘home fire’ warmth.
Production designer Tamara Deverell (del Toro's "Nightmare Alley") had leeway recreating Graceland, which was redecorated after Priscilla left, creating a genteel mid-century Southern manor with basement offices, Elvis’s bedroom flocked gold and black. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Coppola's "The Beguiled") creates dimly lit interiors, Coppola's long time editor Sarah Flack cutting the scenes to leave an impression, building momentum with a steady rhythm. Costume designer Stacey Battat (Coppola's "The Beguiled") and hair designer Cliona Furey’s contributions are both integral, aiding Spaeny’s arc from teenager to adult.
As in “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola uses an often anachronistic soundtrack, kicking off with the Ramones’ cover of ‘Baby, I Love You’ and ending with Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ the song Elvis reportedly sang to Priscilla as they left divorce court together. There is no Elvis music and, surprisingly, it proves unnecessary, The Shondells’ 'Crimson & Clover' perfectly expressing everything about a first kiss. Coppola’s husband’s band, Phoenix, once again provides the score, working in strains of Frankie Avalon’s ‘Venus’ as Priscilla’s theme. If there is a fault in Copolla’s work, it is that it is difficult to believe the two people who separate at the end of it continue to love each other, if they ever really did.
A24 releases "Priscilla" in select theaters on 10/27/23, wide on 11/3/23.