Sofia Coppola’s film ‘Priscilla’ is a refreshing account of the fascinating life of Priscilla Presley

Courtesy of A24

If you went into “Priscilla” expecting a romanticization of the infamous relationship between Elvis and Priscilla Presley, you were in for a rude awakening. This was Priscilla’s story through and through. 

In fact, the film is so focused on the less-than-idyllic aspects of Priscilla’s life that Lisa Marie — Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter — was against its creation, fearing it may paint an entirely negative picture of her father. A complete 180 from her reaction to “Elvis” in 2022, which she loved and fully endorsed.  

Throughout Sophia Coppola’s film, it’s highlighted again and again just how young Priscilla is — yes, people thought the ten-year age gap was weird back then too — which caused the “romantic” scenes to feel predatory. 

This is a direct contrast from the movie “Elvis” in which director Baz Luhrman conveniently decided not to include that Priscilla was fourteen when the pair met, and maybe shows two scenes total where Priscilla is unhappy. 

“Priscilla” is a story of girlhood, coming into your own and deciding what you ultimately want for your life. 

Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) experiences Elvis (Jacob Elordi) constantly putting pressure on her to be at Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, as he might “need her” at any given time. He isolated her from friends and family by moving her to Graceland and prohibiting her from starting a part-time job, even while he was away working on a film. 

Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi perfectly captured Priscilla’s grace and poise and Elvis’ charisma. Elordi had big shoes to fill after Austin Butler’s 2022 Oscar-nominated performance in “Elvis”, but I dare say he succeeded in providing a more accurate and honest portrayal. Elordi presents Elvis as a fully capable human being who should be held responsible for his actions, whereas Butler’s portrayal fits in with the narrative that Elvis was the victim of exploitation in his fame. 

Spaeny portrays Priscilla as lovestruck but not naive. She is a girl who knows what she wants but needs to come into her own in order to ask for it. 

Coppola’s choice to include seemingly mundane scenes of Priscilla sitting alone in Elvis’s mansion allows the viewer to see how addictive the fast-paced nature of her life with Elvis could become. 

If you’re waiting for permission to live your life, you’ll chase those sporadic moments of excitement. Priscilla desired those breaks in loneliness so ardently that she went as far as taking amphetamines — given to her by Elvis — just to stay awake during the day.

Elvis may have been “protective” of Priscilla as far as controlling where she could go and what she pursued, but in other ways, he was incredibly careless. 

One scene includes Elvis giving Priscilla a sleeping pill upon her arrival to Graceland, causing her to be unconscious for two full days. Coppola gives the audience almost no time to process this information, perhaps mirroring the chaotic nature of Priscilla’s life. 

Priscilla endures tabloids and rumors about Elvis and his co-stars, some of which prove to be more fact than fiction, and yet attempts to understand what she perceives as Elvis’ lack of attraction to her due to his constant rejection of her sexually. 

During her pregnancy, Elvis appears to be deterred by her appearance and asks for some time apart. 

According to The Hollywood Reporter on viewing the film, Priscilla relayed that she “was quite emotional. Only being 14. You look back and you go, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why am I driving in a limo, going through the gates of Graceland with Elvis?’”

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the film was the domestic violence. Elvis repeatedly harms or attempts to harm Priscilla, only to pull her into his arms and whisper he’s sorry. 

A master manipulation tactic, comforting Priscilla while simultaneously shaming her for not living up to his expectations of what he needed in a partner. 

In one montage, Priscilla can be seen wearing beautiful evening gowns, going out to casinos and partying with Elvis, attempting to act older than she is. Contrast those with ones where she is crumpled up on the floor after one of Elvis’s outbursts and the audience is reminded that when you strip away all the glitz and glamor, Priscilla is a young girl in an impossible situation.

The soundtrack includes no Elvis songs due to legal issues, but this proved to be an asset to the story. It furthers the narrative that this is about Priscilla’s experience and lends itself to Coppola not idealizing Elvis in her portrayal. 

Elvis is shown attempting to control every aspect of Priscilla’s life from how she dresses, to her hair color to how she does her makeup. The transformation of Priscilla solidifies that Elvis is attempting to strip her of her identity and model her after himself. 

In one incredibly uncomfortable scene, Priscilla walks into the room wearing a patterned dress. Slumped over in bed Elvis reminds her that prints aren’t for her as she is a “small girl”. It is noteworthy that Priscilla wears patterned clothing after her separation from Elvis, signaling her newfound independence. 

Priscilla snaps, using some profanity as she tells him she’ll get rid of the dress, walking out and slamming the door. We then see Elvis leaning back and chuckling to himself in bed … an odd and albeit disturbing reaction to upsetting your partner. 

Perhaps Coppola chose to include this scene to show viewers that Elvis didn’t see Priscilla as her own person, someone whose emotions should be taken seriously, but rather an accessory to him. 

Priscilla finally comes into her own when she and Elvis are essentially living lives completely separate from each other. She is seen taking karate, enjoying dinners with friends and spending time with their daughter Lisa Marie. The colors in this portion of the movie shift to a more neutral color palette — not bland, but no longer the candy-coated world of Elvis either.

Her outward appearance is a physical manifestation of her separation from “The King”. Gone is the heavy eye makeup and black hair, we see Priscilla figure out her own personal style. 

The final straw before Priscilla leaves Elvis for good is only alluded to in the film, but it’s easy for audience members to put two and two together. After one of his shows, Elvis requests that Priscilla come up and see him. Within the first twenty seconds of Priscilla walking into the room Elvis has pounced on her, ignoring Priscilla’s protests.

Priscilla packs up her things, goes to Graceland one last time, and finally gets in her car. As she drives past the fans and photographers standing outside the gates, we get a sense as the viewer that Priscilla is finally going to live for herself now — she is so much more than Elvis’s wife. 

If you want to watch a movie that’s real, raw and created with so much heart look no further than “Priscilla”. The film is truly a love letter from Coppola to Priscilla, giving her the space to share the trauma she’s endured and to highlight the bravery it took to get out of her marriage.

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