As a movie viewer and person interested in the topic of Elvis Presley, I feel spoiled that within a year and a half we’ve gotten two really good Elvis movies from two very distinct directors. Sofia Coppola’s PRISCILLA doesn’t feel at all redundant coming after Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS, because the perspective and approach are so different. Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, it follows her from the time she met Elvis until the time she divorced him. Most of that shit Luhrmann had to do montages about is happening off camera while she’s left at Graceland waiting for him. (Also Colonel Parker, the narrator and magical puppet master of Luhrmann’s film, is just a guy on the other side of the phone in Coppola’s.)
Cailee Spaeny (young Lynn Cheney, VICE) plays Priscilla Beaulieu, 14-year-old American girl just minding her own business in a diner on the military base in Germany where her stepfather (Ari Cohen, BRUISER, IT, MOLLY’S GAME) is stationed when a soldier named Terry West (Luke Humphrey, John Bobbit in I WAS LORENA BOBBITT) introduces himself. He says he arranges the music on the base so he’s friends with Elvis, and he could introduce her to him because Elvis misses home and likes to meet other Americans. It takes some doing, but he convinces stepdad and mom (Dagmara Dominczyk, BOTTOMS) to let the kid go to a party.
ELVIS didn’t hide that Priscilla was a teenager when they met, but it tried not to dwell on it for long. That’s obviously not the case here, but Coppola doesn’t insult us by telling us what to think about it. She presents it from the point of view of Priscilla, a bored kid given a crazy opportunity, feeling she’s up to it, and that (there’s no need to argue) parents just don’t understand. But also we walk into this house with her, look around and see only adults. There’s really no one there for her to talk to except Elvis (Jacob Elordi, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION), who’s surprised she’s in 9th grade and “just a baby.” A little later everyone’s gathered around him at the piano having a great time and she’s right across the room enjoying the private concert. How can she not feel special? Then she goes back to her ordinary life, in an ordinary classroom, her mind somewhere else.
I like how ambiguous the movie is about what the deal is with this Terry guy. Is he trying to be The King’s wingman? It’s so weird, but it doesn’t play him as sleazy. It treats him like he’s on the up-and-up, other than not paying attention when Elvis tells Priscilla to go upstairs to his room. (The real guy who brought Priscilla to the party, Currie Grant, told an auther he had sex with her before introducing her to Elvis, but she sued him for defamation and got $75,000.)
Well, Terry calls and tells her Elvis wants to see her again (gulp, faint, etc.), and the courtship escalates through late night conversations, a series of fights for parental permission, and the King of Rock ’n Roll coming to the house in uniform to sir and ma’am and my intentions are honorable her parents into his good graces. You can see what a struggle it is for the Beaulieus, feeling it’s very fuckin weird for the 24-year-old star of LOVE ME TENDER, LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK and KING CREOLE to want to hang out with their teen, but also wanting her to be happy, and fearing she’d never forgive them for being the jerks who flushed her golden ticket down the toilet.
I’m sure they feel some relief when his service ends and he heads back to the States, as sad as it makes their girl. She mopes in her bedroom, looking at pictures of Elvis in teen magazines, writing him sappy letters about how much she misses him, not hearing back. Mom tries to convince her to move on, saying that surely there are some handsome boys at school. Imagine some poor twerp in her class trying to live up to her last boyfriend!
I was struck by the time-passing montage showing her sweet sixteen birthday cards. Yep, she’s a kid, not that it’s easy to forget when Spaeny (who’s actually 25) looks and sounds so young. But other than a scene where a friend at a party says, “She’s so young. She’s like… a little girll,” nobody acts like it’s weird for her to be around Elvis. He’s got an entourage of five dudes with him most of the time and none of them bat an eye. Everyone he introduces her to has heard all about her. When he gets back in touch and convinces the Captain to let him fly her out to Graceland, his grandma Dodger (Lynne Griffin, BLACK CHRISTMAS, STRANGE BREW, THE HEAVENLY KID, TRUE IDENTITY) is right at the door, hugging her like her own granddaughter. And he’s big on following her parents’ wishes. Next thing you know she moves into Graceland, with the promise to enroll in Catholic school (where she hears everyone’s whispers about Elvis, but doesn’t talk about him).
Of course Coppola (with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd [THE GRANDMASTER], production designer Tamara Deverell [NIGHTMARE ALLEY], art director Danny Haeberlin [Chucky] and costume designer Stacey Battat [THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY]) make it all look gorgeous, our enjoyment of the surface pleasures standing in for the lure this world has for Priscilla and others. Though Elvis uncomfortably molds her into the image he wants, vetoing some of her fashion choices and telling her to dye her hair, she also clearly enjoys transforming herself through makeup, fingernails, dresses. I’m sure she’s as enamored as we are of the furniture, appliances and other furnishings of Graceland (as impressionistically re-created on a soundstage in Toronto), though to her they’re ultra modern luxury and to us they’re stylishly retro.
According to PRISCILLA and Presley herself, this was not a matter of sexual exploitation. Up to and even sometimes after marriage Priscilla wants to have sex with Elvis, but he refuses to “get carried away.” What’s going on is troubling in a different way. He’s off in Hollywood filming movies, having relationships with Ann Margret and others while he keeps Priscilla on reserve in Memphis to marry later.
When he, you could say, “puts a ring on it,” it’s a very telling moment. You could not say he “pops the question,” because he doesn’t say, “Will you marry me?” He says, “We’re gonna get married!” Of course he knew her answer, but it’s still striking that the way he puts it is basically, this is what I have decided.
I don’t envy anyone having to follow up Austin Butler’s portrayal in ELVIS, even in this role requiring way less performing, aging and deteriorating, but man did Elordi take the torch and run. It’s a very specific portrayal of Presley’s charisma and boyishness. He’s sometimes a sweetheart, sometimes a comical doofus, sometimes a self-absorbed, entitled, and controlling man. I’m not one of those anti-Elvis people, but this feels very true to me. I suspect they got his number here. When he says or does something cruel it’s almost immediately followed with some variation of “I’m sorry baby,” sometimes with more manipulation, sometimes sounding sincere. You can see how his charm helped him get away with this stuff. There’s a scene where he wakes up in the afternoon and immediately starts nitpicking the dress she’s wearing, telling her what looks good on her. She snaps, “Okay, I’ll return the fucking dress!” and storms out. He’s surprised by her reaction and starts to laugh, not a bullying laugh but such an affable, natural one that I’m almost tricked into forgiving him. Almost.
In my review of ELVIS I complained that there was barely any reference to his fascination with karate. I think PRISCILLA actually has more of it -there’s a little scene where she’s having a lesson, and in the next scene talking about it with her teacher and friends, and using the word “kata.” I don’t believe “kata” was in ELVIS.
Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me to expect this, but her karate teacher (played by Evan Annisette), is supposed to be Mike Stone, later known as Cannon’s go-to ninja expert after his original screenplay ENTER THE NINJA kicked off the craze. I discussed his relationship with Elvis and Priscilla in my review of AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, in which he played the villainous Tojo Ken. PRISCILLA implies an attraction between her and Stone, one of the signs that she’s wriggling out from Elvis’ control, but (unless I’m too thick to pick up on it) doesn’t tell us that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, and lived together for a few years before and after she left Elvis.
According to a 1998 Black Belt Magazine article the Presleys first encountered Stone when they were on their honeymoon in Hawaii, and they saw him win Ed Parker’s Mainland vs. Hawaii Karate Championships. Later Elvis ran into Stone again in Vegas when he was a bodyguard for Phil Spector. According to the article Elvis wanted him to teach Priscilla karate, but Stone says they just ran into each other a number of times while she was training under Ed Parker and Chuck Norris, until she started pursuing him as both teacher and lover. According to some books and Stone himself, Elvis threatened to come over and fight Stone, which would’ve been a great scene in both of these movies, but unfortunately never came to fruition. Priscilla eventually left Stone for talking to the press about their relationship (he claims he was tricked into it when promoting a karate event on a talk show).
Stone was later stunt coordinator for HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, which is not mentioned in PRISCILLA.
I think the meaning of the Mike Stone scenes didn’t fully register for me while viewing them, because later Priscilla’s having drinks with friends during her husband’s residency in Vegas, and I thought “oh wow, she’s really starting to have her own life,” and before I knew it the movie was over. Sorry, runtime police, but I think this could’ve stood to be longer! Still, it’s a strong ending..
Whether it’s calculated or not, Elvis has power over everyone through all the things he provides for them. He gives them this magical life they’ve become accustomed to, and he could take it away forever, so how can they say no to him? I’m struck by a detail in the film’s scariest scene, when Elvis suddenly flips out during a group discussion about his music and throws a chair, just missing Priscilla and putting a dent in the wall. One of the Memphis mafia members, I’m not sure you even see which one, instinctively yells “Look out!” as it’s happening. You can feel an understanding in the room, in their eyes, that they all agree this is fucked, and also that none of them will say anything.
Usually the abuse is not physical. The second most upsetting scene is when he’s off shooting a movie and she wants to take a part time job at a boutique, but he immediately shuts her down, saying she has to be there to answer the phone if he calls. So she drops it. She’s experienced the whiplash from Elvis-world to normal life before, so she just does what he says.
That’s why it feels huge when she decides to leave him. ELVIS portrays it as Priscilla putting her foot down after he fucked up too many times, but PRISCILLA frames it as an affirmative choice for her life. A decision to go off and become her own woman, choose her own path.
You know those moments where you move out of a place, and you take one last nostalgic look around before you leave? It’s funny to see her experience that relatable thing but in Graceland, a place I paid money to see as a tourist. But that was her life. She says goodbye to Grandma and Alberta the cook (Olivia Barrett, Saving Hope) like they’re family and she’s going off to college.
The movie is not approved by Elvis Presley Enterprises, and couldn’t use any of his recordings. That can be a problem with music biopics, but it’s not here. There are some intentionally anachronistic choices – instead of the original Ronettes song “Baby, I Love You,” Coppola uses the Ramones version – but mostly it’s based on and mixed in with period appropriate songs.
ENDING SONG CHOICE SPOILER. As Priscilla walks away into her new life (and the end credits) we hear Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and I was moved by it being returned to its original meaning as a breakup song (written when Dolly ended her business partnership with her mentor Porter Wagoner). I also vaguely remembered there being a story about Elvis liking the song, so I looked it up: he wanted to do a cover, but Colonel Parker said Dolly would have to sign over half of the publishing rights, so she turned them down. It made her sad because “He would’ve killed it,” but of course, when THE BODYGUARD came out her choice was rewarded.
More relevant, though: Priscilla told Dolly that Elvis sang it to her on the courthouse steps after they signed the divorce papers. So I guess it was kind of his song choice before it was Coppola’s. Now it becomes Priscilla’s perspective. “Bitter-sweet memories / That’s all I’m taking with me.”
This is a great movie. Like all movies, more karate would improve it. But it’s a special one. Now that we have Sofia’s answer to ELVIS, I’m hoping for her response BUBBA HO-TEP. There’s more room for exploration here. I was gonna open with an ELVIS ORIGINS: PRISCILLA joke, but the movie is too good to start on such a dumb note. So instead I’ll end on it. Movies are great, you guys.
p.s. I’ve enjoyed each of the Sofia Coppola pictures as they’ve come out. The ones I’ve reviewed are:
I didn’t end up reviewing THE BEGUILED (2017) because I watched Clint’s version for the first time right before and it made it hard for me to appreciate her take. And the only Sofia joint I’ve watched repeatedly is her Netflix Christmas special A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – here’s my little blurb about it on Letterboxd.