Synopsis: When teenage Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley, the man who is already a meteoric rock-and-roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, a vulnerable best friend.
Stars: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin, Dan Beirne, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Dan Abramovici
Director: Sofia Coppola
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In the eyes of Hollywood, there are two sides to every (love) story, and with those tales come the inevitable competing biopics. In 2022, Baz Luhrmann released his all-encompassing take on the life of Elvis Presley to huge fanfare. Though not a slam-dunk critical darling, it built on the strong word-of-mouth from audiences to become a sizable hit, with repeat business a key factor in its success. A typically Lurhmann-esque cavalcade of decadence, it was a visual feast that had Austin Butler’s once-in-a-lifetime performance as the late singer becoming the talk of the town and just missing out on the Oscar. (He should have gotten it, in my opinion.)
Now, a year later, Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) offers her vision of a different perspective on the private life of Elvis. Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 autobiography Elvis and Me, the ex-wife of the King is given more prominence than was afforded in Lurhmann’s film. Still, it does not tell us anything we didn’t already glean from the earlier film. Instead, what Priscilla winds up coming across as is a poorly timed, by-the-numbers attempt to insert itself into the consciousness of a public already aware of the lives of its subject.
Living with her parents in Germany while her father was stationed at an army base near Bad Nauheim, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex) had a relatively sheltered life before she was invited to attend an off-base party and met Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, Deep Water). At that time, the singer was already an established star who enrolled in the military in part to clean-up his reputation. Though they had a 10-year age difference, the 14-year-old Priscilla quickly falls in young love with Elvis, only to have her heart broken when he flies home and resumes his fast-lane lifestyle. Never count out true love, though, because three years later, Elvis still has feelings for Priscilla, and he flies her over to Graceland.
Married at 22, by then, Elvis had fully groomed Priscilla, Coppola would argue in more ways than one. Ditching her All-American looks for the dark eyeliner, fake lashes, and huge hair that would become her staple for a time, Priscilla was isolated in Graceland while Elvis played around the world making movies and performing to sell-out crowds. The arrival of their daughter, Lisa Marie, a year after they married, would help them for a time, but the bond they had when they first met overseas would never truly be regained. Both had growing up to do, and Coppola delves into the new age practices Elvis explored before being shut down by Col. Tom Parker (who is never seen here and barely mentioned) and Priscilla’s aim for self-improvement through healthy living that eventually led her to leave her husband.
Peppered with good supporting work, Priscilla is mostly a two-hander shared by Spaeny and Elordi. Elordi has the unenviable task of following Butler’s incredible work and, to his credit, creates his own Elvis that works for what Coppola’s film is trying to do. The Australian Elordi doesn’t quite nail the Southern accent (he does better as a Brit in the upcoming Saltburn), but he puts on the appropriate amount of Presley charisma that makes him irresistible to everyone, no matter what your orientation is. Spaeny (who won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for her work) is no slouch either, transforming from a mousy early teen to a self-aware mother taking a considerable risk in walking away from a life of comfort. There’s not much space to stretch into deep emotional wells in the small arena Coppola affords, but I think that’s also intentional.
While it’s lovely to look at and carefully assembled when seen from a coldly technical standpoint, Priscilla is mostly an emotionally vacant and chilly response to 2022’s far more vibrant litigation of the life of Elvis Presley and the relationship with his ex-wife and mother of his child. It may not have taken center stage like in Coppola’s film, but at least Luhrmann’s movie found a new way to calculate the biopic formula. Priscilla uses basic addition to get its total, and that feels like a far too easy way to get a solution to the complexities of intricate relationships.