Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s telling of the courtship of the 14-year-old Priscilla Presley née Beaulieu by the 24-year-old Elvis, will make uncomfortable viewing for fans of The King. It shows him in a far from flattering light, as an insecure narcissist fixated on a teenage girl and unwilling to allow his young wife any independence. The film, endorsed by Presley herself and adapted from her book Elvis and Me (which she co-wrote with Sandra Harmon), is a downbeat and dour affair, with little of the exuberance of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis last year.
“We are leading separate lives,” Priscilla (Mare of Easttown’s Cailee Spaeny) tells Elvis (Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi) toward the end of the movie, which has had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Truthfully, though, she always seemed to exist on the periphery of his world – ever since they first met while she was enrolled in a German high school, with Elvis visiting as part of his stint in the US army. When Priscilla is first asked over to Elvis’s house, piercing her life of restlessness and boredom in the process, she leaps at the chance of some excitement. Her father, a military officer, is at first extremely reluctant to allow her to hang out with Elvis and his friends. But once he is reassured that his daughter will be strictly chaperoned, he relents.
Elvis towers over Priscilla. She’s a schoolgirl and he is effectively grooming her. They have long talks and soon become close. He is grieving the recent death of his mother and sees Priscilla, in spite of her youth, as someone to confide in. Elordi makes a decent stab at playing Elvis. He has the voice and physique for the role, but lacks his charm and vulnerability. From the outset, he tries to control Priscilla, telling her what to wear and insisting she dye her hair black.
Upon returning to the US with her family, Priscilla assumes Elvis has forgotten about her, until she is summoned to Memphis to join him at his home. At times, as she lives alone and neglected in Elvis’s mansion, Priscilla seems more like a heroine in a chilly Gothic novel by the Bronte sisters than someone in a movie about a rock ‘n’ roll star.
Spaeny gives a compelling and moving performance as the bright young woman whose spirit is slowly crushed. Elvis’s father Vernon is mean and cruel to her. When she visits the office to shoot the breeze with his secretaries, he scolds her for distracting them from their work. Elvis himself is forever heading off to Hollywood to make movies, leaving her behind. When he is at home, he spends much of his time drinking and shooting pool with his male hangers-on, the so-called “Memphis Mafia”.
When Elvis becomes interested in crackpot religious ideas, he demands Priscilla follow him on his spiritual journey. At one stage, they take psychedelic drugs together. In spite of his obsession with Priscilla, Elvis doesn’t have sex with her. If anything, she seems keener to sleep with him than he does with her. Eventually, when Priscilla is 21, they marry and have a daughter, Lisa Marie, but her arrival doesn’t make him any more attentive to her.
Very little Elvis music is heard on the soundtrack. Instead, Coppola opens the film with The Ramones’ “Baby I Love You” as Priscilla puts on her false nails and eyelashes. The Colonel, Elvis’s famously slippery manager played in last year’s Elvis by Tom Hanks, is also talked about but never seen.
The director tells her subject’s story in short, self-contained episodes which don’t always link to each other and aren’t always fully explained. Everything is seen from Priscilla’s perspective. She is a young woman growing up in the strangest environment imaginable. Her Elvis is very different from the rock star the entire world seems to love.
In her own coolly analytical way, Coppola makes some trenchant points about the way Priscilla is controlled by the men in her life. She is living in a gilded cage. The wealth and luxury she experiences don’t compensate for her complete loss of freedom. And while Elvis may indeed have been the King, his court – on the evidence here – was a very dreary place indeed.
Dir: Sofia Coppola. Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Dominczyk. 110 minutes.
‘Priscilla’ is in selected UK cinemas from 26 December, and opens widely on 1 January