So soon after the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, do we really need another Elvis Presley film? Luhrmann’s maximalist pop biopic felt like it got the first and last word on its subject, as well as most of the other words that could be squeezed in between them. But Sofia Coppola has found a fruitful – not to mention woozily beautiful – new line of attack.
Of course as its title makes plain, Priscilla isn’t focused on Elvis at all. Its central character, thoughtfully and tenderly played by Cailee Spaeny, is his wife of six years, whom he met when she was 14 years old, and he 24, during his military service. But even armed with that knowledge, nothing can quite prepare you for how much of an Elvis film Priscilla is not.
For one thing, having been made without the cooperation of Elvis Presley Enterprises (Coppola adapted the film from Priscilla Presley’s memoir), it contains none of his songs. For another, there are only snatches of performance here and there: a couple of seconds of the 1968 Comeback Special; a brief shot from behind on the Las Vegas Hilton stage. Meanwhile, Elvis himself, played with an aloof nonchalance by Jacob Elordi, is an oblique, sometimes even marginal figure – a neatly coiffed image with uncertain substance behind.
Like Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, the film is another story of a young woman trapped in a gilded cage – with Elvis, the generational heartthrob, serving as both Priscilla’s jailer and bait. We first encounter her as a series of fragments – an eyelid brushed by mascara, neatly pedicured toes sinking into coral shag-pile – before the film rewinds to 1959, where she’s a Norman Rockwell teenage dream, wearing a pink fluffy sweater and sipping Coke, bored, at the counter of a faux-American diner on a West German military base. Frankie Avalon’s Venus plays on the soundtrack – “Please send a little girl for me to thrill,” it croons – before a uniformed associate of Elvis’s approaches and invites her to a party to meet his famous friend.
Coppola and Spaeny paint Priscilla at first as a schoolgirl with an impossible pop star crush that, even more impossibly, happens to be reciprocated. (At 6’5, Elordi’s Elvis towers over his 5’1 bride-to-be – a difference Coppola exploits in the frame to sum up the couple’s power dynamic.)
But once she’s been installed in Graceland as the singer’s romantic partner – secretly, of course, so as not to put off the fans – she becomes a sort of living ornament, with jet-black beehive hair, an immaculate manicure, and a series of stylish dresses (though only ones of which her lover approves). Coppola keeps the light relatively low, to emphasise Priscilla’s shuttering off from the world – and also to exploit Spaeny and Elordi’s profiles, which look especially beautiful in silhouette. Yet her heroine embraces her sentence as much as she pushes back against it: the film’s signature move is poking around the strange psychological grey space between being kept and being caught.
But just as Elvis himself gets lost in self-help philosophy and an increasingly cartoonish persona, Priscilla grows out of the role she’s been moulded for and into herself. A final needle drop – Dolly Parton’s original recording of I Will Always Love You – subtly underscores the point. That was the song Elvis always wanted to record himself and make his own, but Parton refused to sign over the rights. Some things even rock icons can’t have.
Cert 15, 110 min. In UK cinemas from New Year’s Day