Movie Curiosities: Priscilla

Last year brought us Elvis, a biopic from Baz Luhrman, whose established CV and artistic sensibilities made him uniquely qualified for the heightened musical bombast of Elvis Aaron Presley. Yet the film had a noteworthy blind spot, in that it glossed over the Elvis/Priscilla relationship and the teensy little detail that Elvis met his future wife when she was still a teenager.

So here’s Priscilla, a biopic from Sofia Coppola, an auteur uniquely qualified to tell a story about a teenage girl growing up in a gilded cage. This one was directly based on the memoirs of Priscilla Presley nee Beaulieu herself, who also contributed to the film as an executive producer.

I might add that Priscilla Presley herself has publicly supported the film, while daughter Lisa Marie Presley objected to the depiction of her father. Knowing this family, one suspects that this difference of opinion was only one facet of a much deeper and more convoluted feud in the run-up to Lisa Marie’s death ten months ago. But I digress.

On one level, I get how the Presleys have a vested financial stake in keeping Elvis’ image pristine. More importantly, I can only begin to imagine how painful it must be to air out all this dirty family laundry in public. That said, Elvis was 24 and Priscilla was 14 when they first met. That is a matter of public record. That is settled historical fact beyond dispute. It is creepy as hell. And like it or not, because Elvis Presley is arguably the most iconic and influential figure in all of pop culture history (except maybe Marilyn Monroe), we all have to find some way to deal with it.

Granted, it makes a difference that Sofia Coppola has a track record of playing fast and loose with history (live by Marie Antoinette, die by Marie Antoinette), so I get the temptation to side with Lisa Marie Presley’s assessment at first blush. Even so, it makes a huge difference that the film was based on Priscilla Presley’s contemporaneous accounts, Priscilla Presley herself was directly involved in the making of the film, and she stands by the depiction with warts and all.

Anyway, how is the movie? Well, Cailee Spaeny once again proves herself an outrageously underrated talent by playing Priscilla from age 14 to age 27. It makes a huge difference that Spaeny perfectly sells a kind of arrogant naivete, as we constantly watch Priscilla charge headlong into a situation she’s nowhere near as ready to handle as she thinks she is. That said, I’d be remiss not to mention the production design, which spends the first 45 minutes or so drenching Priscilla in pastel pinks. Together with her ponytail and her prim dresses, all she’s missing is a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses and a lollipop.

And what of Jacob Elordi as Elvis? Well, he’s no Austin Butler. But then, these are two very different depictions of Elvis as portrayed by two wildly different filmmakers. Luhrmann’s take needed a leading man, and Butler was perfect for that. Coppola needed more of a secondary lead, and Elordi fits the bill nicely.

Probably the single most important difference between the two regards “Colonel” Tom Parker. In the Luhrmann picture, Parker was a co-lead arguably even more prominent than the title character. In Priscilla, the Colonel is only mentioned in passing a handful of times. Luhrmann depicted Elvis as a tragic figure who had given up all control of his life to a huckster, while Coppola depicts Elvis as a man so obsessed with his image that he micro-manages every decision in his young girlfriend’s life.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Maybe the real Elvis felt so powerless in his own life that he was desperate to exert control anywhere he could. Or maybe he was trying to prove to his manager and his father that he wasn’t completely dependent on them to keep his house in order. We can only speculate.

Regardless, the upshot is that Elvis and Priscilla (as Coppola portrays them) are similar in that they both have a pathological need to be desired. The difference is that Elvis is an older man with otherworldly fame and wealth while Priscilla is some teenage girl he plucked from out of nowhere. There’s an tremendous, maybe even insurmountable power imbalance. This makes it all the more disturbing when Elvis tells Priscilla she can’t get a job outside of Graceland, she can’t wear that dress she likes, she’ll take whatever uppers and downers he gives her, and she’ll be available to him 24/7 or she can go back to her parents and watch the tabloids as Elvis gets himself publicly attached to some Hollywood starlet.

It bears remembering that Priscilla is now a regular feature in the tabloid gossip rags, which means she has to keep up with all the impossibly heightened and wildly sexist beauty standards of the 1960s. It also means that she has to go and be a common high school student while all her classmates are whispering behind her back and she’d rather be hanging out with the goddamn King. And of course we can’t forget the fits of jealousy as Priscilla has to read (possibly) overblown headlines about Elvis’ romantic affairs with big-name actresses while Priscilla never even gets a social life outside of Elvis’ family and hangers-on.

The point being that Priscilla went into this with no idea of what she was getting into. Because of course she had no idea what she was getting into, she’s a freaking child!!! And even if Elvis won’t cross the line of having sex with her until she’s eighteen, they do pretty much every other damn thing else. It’s bittersweet and genuinely heartbreaking to watch as Priscilla gets herself so invested in Elvis that she become solely dependent on him in every aspect of her life, from the romantic to the financial. Did Elvis have any idea what he was doing? We can only speculate, and Elordi plays him with such nuance that it could go either way. But at a time when Elvis could’ve had his pick of literally any woman on the whole goddamn planet, one has to wonder why he went with a girl who was barely out of puberty.

There are many times early on when Priscilla’s parents (mostly her mother, here played by Dagmara Dominczyk) ask why Priscilla can’t just move on past Elvis and focus on some other boy her age. On the downside, that boy wouldn’t be Elvis Presley. On the upside, at least that boy wouldn’t be goddamn Elvis Presley.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, but there’s one major complaint I keep coming back to: The pacing is outright abysmal.

The film begins roughly when Priscilla first met Elvis and it ends just after she asks him for a divorce. It’s a two-hour movie and they get married roughly 90 minutes in. That only leaves 30 minutes to cover the entire width and breadth of the Elvis/Priscilla marriage, including the birth of their child. I was genuinely interested in seeing how the power dynamic between them might’ve changed after marriage put them on a more equal footing (legally speaking, if nothing else), but the filmmakers were either unwilling or unable to go there. It certainly doesn’t help when Priscilla asks for a divorce, it feels like it should be this huge climactic moment, but there’s so little room to go into it that the whole relationship (and thus the film) goes out on a whimper instead of a bang.

Granted, the filmmakers do a fine job of rushing us through the time skips. I was particularly fond of the repetitive montages that show slight adjustments in daily routine as time passes (the different breakfasts left out for Elvis and Priscilla, for instance). Even so, a lot of that first hour is taken up by Elvis and Priscilla going through the motions of a toxic couple. They have their fun moments, Elvis gives Priscilla some token show of affection, then he (or someone acting as his proxy) acts like a domineering jerk by deciding every detail of her life for her, rinse and repeat. It gets monotonous and predictable in a way that wastes screen time instead of answering more pressing questions.

For example, I was constantly thrown off by the question of where Priscilla’s parents are in all of this. Early on in the film, Elvis is throwing up one red flag after another (“She’s mature for her age,” there’s a perennial favorite.) yet Priscilla’s parents can only put up the bare minimum of resistance before they cave entirely. Why do they keep caving over and over again? Those deliberations are consistently hand-waved away offscreen with no explanation. It does the film and the themes a disservice to keep glossing over why Priscilla’s parents kept allowing this to happen.

So, is Priscilla a good film? Well, it’s certainly worth seeing for Spaeny’s lead performance, and Elordi acquits himself admirably as well. I might add that this dimension of Elvis’ life was so irresponsibly glossed over in the higher-profile Baz Lurhmann flick that we needed another movie like this one to help set the record straight. Even so, I can’t get over the incompetent pacing that left so many questions unanswered and so many answers unquestioned. It’s an admirable depiction of an unhealthy relationship, but it feels like there’s so much room for other better movies to explore this lane. (One could make an argument for Barbie, though Women Talking might be a more pertinent example.)

We needed this movie and I’m glad it exists, but I don’t think it’s going to have much in the way of staying power when all is said and done. This is one for home video.

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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: Priscilla

  1. I never knew about the age difference until this movie was announced, and it really grossed me out. Like I never really thought much of Elvis’ music, but learning that he was basically a groomer is disgusting. Really don’t think I’d be able to watch it given the subject matter.

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