Priscilla (United States, 2023)

November 03, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Priscilla Poster

To date, the various motion pictures presenting the story of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu’s love story have done so with a slant toward Elvis’ point-of-view. With Priscilla, writer/director Sofia Coppola has sought to flip the narrative by looking at familiar events through the eyes of the other participant. Using Priscilla’s autobiographical Elvis and Me (co-written with Sandra Harmon) as her source, Coppola trims inconvenient elements and focuses on others to tell the tale of a naïve, lonely young woman who falls prey to the charisma of a rich, powerful icon and, having been blinded by his promises and her own dreams, becomes trapped in a gilded cage from which she lacks the gumption to escape.

Coppola’s slant on Priscilla’s story isn’t surprising; her career has been built on a foundation of movies about lonely individuals penned in by the demands and expectations of others. From the insightful and bizarrely funny Lost in Translation to the misfire of Somewhere, Coppola has maintained a thematic (although not necessarily narrative) consistency. It’s evident in this film, where she emphasizes Elvis’s less savory personality traits to establish him as a cold, self-centered egoist. Priscilla, on the other hand, remains hopelessly innocent and unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to escape her lover’s yoke. The Story According to Sofia allows for no sunshine in the relationship beyond the first six months in Germany. After that, Priscilla is constantly under Elvis’s thumb, moping around Graceland, fearful that one of his Hollywood co-stars will steal him away, and pining for his attention. And, although the film is quick to highlight Elvis’s numerous extramarital affairs, it conveniently glosses over the times Priscilla strayed.

The movie spans the entirety of Priscilla and Elvis’s relationship, beginning with their meeting in September 1959 at a party in Bad Nauheim, Germany and ending with their separation in 1972. When a star-struck Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) first meets the darkly handsome Elvis (Jacob Elordi), she is only 14 years old; he is 24. That doesn’t stop them from developing a romantic bond. (Charges of grooming are legitimate.) But, six months after their meeting, Elvis returns to the United States and Priscilla remains behind with her parents. Neither forgets about the other, however, and when Elvis invites her to visit him in America and secures her father’s permission for the trip, she leaps at the opportunity. After a couple of visits, she moves permanently to Graceland as Elvis’s “unofficial” fiancé. In 1966, they become engaged, and the marriage follows in 1967. But the storybook veneer fed to the tabloids and the fan magazines is tissue-thin. Priscilla is deeply unhappy. Elvis is rarely home (instead pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles while sleeping with his co-stars) and, when he is around, he is emotionally distant.

The best thing about Priscilla is the performance of 25-year old Cailee Spaeny, an actress whose star is understandably on the rise. Spaeny is able to convincingly play the title character at all ages throughout the film, starting at 14 and concluding at 27. She conveys Priscilla’s youthful exuberance and puppy lovesickness in the early days and her mounting depression when Elvis’ drug addiction and fame steal him away from her. As The King, Jacob Elordi is less successful. At times, when the lighting is just-right and the makeup and hairstylists have done their job, he looks passably like Elvis. He’s too tall – but that was a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers to have him tower over Priscilla, using the height discrepancy as a metaphor. (He is 6’5” to her 5’1” – the real Elvis was 6’0” and Priscilla was 5’4”.) Elordi, whose dubious claim to fame is to have starred in three Kissing Booth movies, offers a caricature. He’s more like an Elvis impersonator than someone seeking to flesh out a three-dimensional character.

Priscilla suffers from pacing issues. The slow progression is an asset early-on as we are introduced to the characters and get to know them. Once the setting shifts to the United States, however, the movie’s meandering narrative threatens viewers with an instant cure for insomnia. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to recognize that there are fatal problems in the Elvis/Priscilla relationship, but the movie insists on dwelling on them for about 80 minutes. Then there’s the film’s curious attitude toward sex. While Priscilla is underage, Elvis won’t have intercourse, saying that he’s saving the “special” moment for when they are married. Priscilla is obviously sexually frustrated and makes numerous attempts to seduce Elvis, but she is rebuffed. Yet, when that “special” moment arrives, it’s neither shown nor alluded to. The viewer has a right to feel that something is missing.

And, speaking of “missing,” how about the Elephant in the Room… Those expecting to hear a few of Elvis’ numerous hits will be disappointed. Except for a few instrumental bars from one, they are not to be found. The reasons for this are murky. Elvis Presley Enterprises, which owns the rights to all the recordings, refused consent to use them (something that will be understandable to anyone who has seen the film). That doesn’t explain, however, why Coppola chose not to have the songs covered. (“Suspicious Minds” with its “We’re caught in a trap” line, would seem to be a perfect choice.) The complete absence of any Elvis music, even if not actually performed by The King, is problematic. Elvis, especially in retrospect, is defined by his music. (Something made evident by Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 Elvis and the new stage musical “Elvis: A Musical Revolution.”) Not using the music in any shape or form dilutes the identity of an already poorly-realized character.

After his death, Elvis’ legacy was tarnished by revelations about his drug addiction and his deficiencies as a husband/father (some resulting from the publication of Priscilla’s book in 1985). Although it’s possible to argue the merits of re-examining the relationship and marriage from another perspective, Priscilla may not be the best avenue for this. This mean-spirited and unpleasant production is unlikely to find favor with many either inside or outside of Elvis’ fan base.

Priscilla (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2023-11-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1