Priscilla Is an Elvis Movie That Isn’t About Elvis
By now, the formula for musical biopics has become so familiar that it's become background noise: A young person with talent and a dream sets out from lowly beginnings, gets lucky, has a spree of success, wanders into a dark place as fame and fortune take their toll, and finally finds a way out, becoming a legend in the process. Sometimes this makes for passable entertainment and even allows for some stylistic pizazz; more often it makes for by-the-numbers stories built around middling impressions of famous singers.
Sophia Coppola's Priscilla takes a different approach: Although it spans much of the career of Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), it shifts the focus to someone in his orbit, his young girlfriend and eventually wife, Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny).
Here, the rise and fall of one of America's most popular singers is witnessed at a remove, by an outsider brought—one might say lured—into his world. And the focus is not so much on recounting the highlights of his already famous career than on dramatizing the behind-the-scenes domestic life of someone in his orbit. It's a quietly remarkable film that, as with so many of Coppola's works, places a young woman's experience at the center of the story, giving her agency even in the midst of what amounts to a real-world fantasy life.
When we first meet Priscilla, she's sitting at an officer's club in Germany at the end of the 1950s. A man in uniform approaches and asks if she'd like to join him and his wife at a party—and not just any party. Presley, who was in the military, was stationed nearby, and they'd be going to his house. You can see the apprehension in her eyes, the inhere suspicion about an older man who wants to hang out with a girl who was just a freshman in high school. But you also see the appeal to a teenager who feels trapped, lonely, and bored while stationed in an unfamiliar country. She convinces her wary parents to let her go and eventually falls for Elvis' charms.
One can imagine a less subtle movie that portrays the age and power gap between a famous heartthrob and a high-school girl as simple exploitation, especially in the age of warnings about groomers and age-gap relationships.
But Coppola's film, which is based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir, delivers something far more nuanced, something that doesn't simply treat Priscilla as a helpless individual who is acted upon. Rather, the movie shows Elvis using his power, his fame, his mumbling charm to get what he wants—but also that Priscilla herself wanted to be with him, wanted the life of wealth and glamour that he offered, the escape from the mundanities of life with her mother and stepfather.
Even as she becomes something more like a trapped woman, with the mercurial Elvis dictating what she must wear, refusing to let her work, and demanding that she stay home alone for long stretches while he films movies (and has widely reported flings), she retains a real sense of agency. More than anything, the movie is about Priscilla's discovery that her life is her own, that she exists independent of the strange whims and peculiarities of a famous man.
All of this is captured with Coppola's signature deftness—the desaturated low-light photography, the moody pop soundtrack, and the focus on scenery and objects that have defined her work going back to The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and Lost in Translation. There's a carefully calibrated, almost textural quality to all of these movies and the worlds they depict, a world of tactile luxury that is fascinating but empty. Like all of those movies, Priscilla follows a young woman of privilege who finds herself surrounded by beautiful things in an uncanny, yet ultimately disappointing, world. Unlike so many rote musical biopics, it's not about becoming a legend; it's about a woman becoming herself.
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