Coming just a year after Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” (a historical account of Elvis Presley’s longtime manager and “career controller” Col. Tom Parker), Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” is the story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, who was married to the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll from 1967 to 1973. Adapted from her 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla Presley also serves as executive producer for this effort. Thus, we assume going in that this account will be told from Priscilla’s perspective, and may contain an unflattering portrait of the King.
And while Elvis certainly has his “issues,” he is depicted in a more sympathetic light than one might imagine. It is apparent that the flicker of love between Elvis and Priscilla always burned; even in separation, they still loved each other. Unfortunately, theirs was a relationship doomed from the outset – destined to fail due to its inherent lack of a foundation.
“Priscilla” begins in 1959 during the time her U.S. Army father is stationed in Germany – at the same base as Elvis. Invited to a party by a fellow serviceman, young Priscilla (just a high school freshman) meets the most famous person in the world. Elvis takes an instant liking to her – in large part, we later learn, because she reminds him of his recently deceased mother. 25-year-old Cailee Spaeny does an excellent job as Priscilla, but perhaps no more so than the 14-year-old version. Here, she really comes off as fourteen! The make-up department can only work so much magic. Spaeny does the rest.
When Elvis asks what singers Priscilla and her classmates are listening to these days, she sheepishly responds, “Bobby Darin, Fabian, and you.” As Elvis, this is also Jacob Elordi’s best scene. He somewhat rolls his eyes when Priscilla mentions Bobby Darin. As if to say, “But of course.” But his eyes twinkle when he learns he’s still one of the hot singers with the high school crowd.
Elvis, Priscilla, Priscilla’s parents, and Elvis’ father all realize this is an odd relationship, but the two continue to visit one another during Elvis’ military deployment in Germany. Fortunately, Elvis is man enough to meet Priscilla’s parents early on, and introduce them to his own father. All interested parties are involved from the get-go. This is not a sexual relationship, and the parents can tell. How? They’re parents. They can tell. Still, their friendship could best be described as “odd,” and the parents are painfully aware.
Four years later, Elvis reconnects with Priscilla and her family. He makes the bold move of asking for her to join him, his father, and grandmother, at his Graceland estate in Memphis. He arranges for her enrollment in a Catholic high school for her to complete her senior year. Again, an odd request – and one most parents would reject. On the other hand, Elvis has been nothing but a perfect gentleman up to this point. The Beaulieus know their daughter will be well taken care of. And let’s face it – it’s hard to say “no” to Elvis Presley (still one of the most famous people in the world in 1963).
But alas, paradise if often not all it’s cracked up to be. And such is the case with Priscilla’s new life. Yes, she is afforded any material item she desires. But Elvis is often not present. He’s performing, or in the recording studio, or in Hollywood shooting a movie. Elvis’ father Vernon (Tim Post) is a strict taskmaster. And Priscilla spends all her spare time dreaming of the time Elvis will return.
In a telling phone-call scene, Elvis tells Priscilla he doesn’t want her to accept an after-school job; he wants her home whenever he returns. Furthermore, Elvis is depicted as abusing prescription drugs even as far back as 1963. There are simply too many red flags for the success of this relationship. But recall Priscilla is now just 18 years old. And her boyfriend is still the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
It is at this point we are able to accurately predict where Coppola’s adapted screenplay is headed – if we didn’t know already. And while “Priscilla” is certainly not a bad film (and definitely not of the “celebrity gossip” nature), it does have a few problems. As mentioned, Spaeny’s performance is strong throughout. But as Elvis’ life careens into one of increasing drug abuse, Elordi has a tendency to mumble his lines. I understand the desired effect; but I would also like to hear what Elvis is trying to say.
Also, I have never read any account of Elvis Presley in which he smokes. Now this is Priscilla Presley’s personal account – and she would know better than anyone else – but it is jarring to see Elvis so addicted to cigarettes. Furthermore, we all curse when angry, but I find it hard to believe Elvis would so casually take the Lord’s name in vain. He was a very religious man (a fact absent from “Priscilla” but well documented elsewhere, including in last year’s “Elvis”), and such speech seems out of place.
Unlike “Elvis,” almost none of the soundtrack selections in “Priscilla” are Elvis’ own music. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself; but I do not like when songs are used out of place historically. In other words, all the 1959 scenes feature music from that time period – including Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” and Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s.” Then why does Coppola include Tommy James’ 1969 hit “Crimson and Clover” during this sequence? Yes, the lyrics “I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her” are very appropriate after the two protagonists have had their first couple dates. But you can’t tell me there isn’t some 1950s song with essentially the same sentiment. The psychedelic sound of Tommy James is simply way out of place in 1959.
Again, “Priscilla” isn’t a bad film. And don’t think of it as a companion piece to “Elvis.” The two films are very different. I feel like I learned less from “Priscilla” than from “Elvis.” I knew very little about Col. Tom Parker before watching “Elvis,” whereas Priscilla Presley’s life is fairly well documented. Ironically, there hasn’t yet been a major Hollywood production about the life of Elvis Presley himself. And I’m okay with that. There’s just too much material for a two-hour movie. Elvis’ life belongs to a four-night Ken Burns documentary. And maybe that’s something Burns will consider. In the meantime, we have “Elvis” and now “Priscilla.”