“If I stay now, I’ll never leave” – Priscilla Presley
The screen has been in no short supply of Elvis-related projects as of late. The King of Rock and Roll’s legacy and status in pop culture has thrived to this day. But how would a title like that affect a marriage? There is only one person who has and will ever know the answer, and her name is Priscilla Presley. In 1985, Priscilla and writer Sandra Harmon released the memoir Elvis and Me, a first-hand account of the complex relationship she shared with her iconic husband from their very first meeting until his untimely passing. The pair met for the first time on an American army base in the German town of Bad Nauheim, where the singer was carrying out his service in the armed forces and Priscilla’s step-father Captain Paul Beaulieu had recently been stationed.
At the time of their meeting, Priscilla Beaulieu was only fourteen years old with Elvis being ten years her senior. Their relationship first started blossoming after meeting at a party, and the rest is history. When Elvis was discharged and relocated back to America to continue the music career he was so concerned about losing, he flew Priscilla out to Memphis, Tennessee on multiple occasions to continue their courtship. Her parents eventually allowed her to permanently move to Graceland under the guardianship of Elvis’s father Vernon Presley, on the condition that she continued to attend high school and graduate.
While she has garnered much fame herself over the years, Priscilla Presley has remained a supporting character in Elvis’ story until now. Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette writer-director Sofia Coppola takes the reins and reverses the roles with her latest feature produced by A24, aptly titled with the simple ring of just its protagonist’s name. After a budding romance that spanned over seven years and two continents, the pair finally wed. Age gap aside, this sounds like a romantic tale of whirlwind love, right? Alas, nothing in life is that simple, and the harshness of reality eventually infiltrates even the dreamiest of love stories. As a result, Elvis and Priscilla’s marriage was not always smooth sailing. But whose is? This is what makes Coppola’s biopic so special and well-rounded, as it sees both of the characters at its core as humans first and foremost instead of caricatures.
The movie never skews from Priscilla’s perspective at any given point, loyally upholding the authorship of her life story, which begins right in the midst of adolescence. Sofia Coppola, a filmmaker known for tackling films that revolve around womanhood, finds relatability even in a person like Priscilla Presley who is so far removed from a mundane lifestyle. That humanity, and all the vulnerability that comes with it, manifests through young love in Coppola’s biographical adaptation. Having a crush on an older celebrity is a quintessential part of most women’s teenage years, even though in practice it may be morally complicated. The early stages of womanhood can be daunting even during the best of times, let alone when pictures of you and perhaps the most famous man in the world continuously make for front-page news.
Let’s acknowledge the hound-dog in the room, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis which released to much critical acclaim last year. These two biopics can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin, two different entities that complement each other in a Yin and Yang manner. Where Luhrmann embellishes many elements of Elvis’ life to the extreme, Coppola maintains naturalism in a refined runtime that comes to just under two hours in length and feels restrained in all the best ways. Self-assured in its intentions at all times, Priscilla leans into a more muted approach to this sensitive tale so that it never veers into exploitative territory in the way that many biopics do, whether it be intentional or not.
Cailee Spaeny (How It Ends, Mare of Easttown) is a revelation, seamlessly capturing Priscilla’s youthfulness, gradual maturity, and the silent frustration of a young woman wrestling with her own agency. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous in the role, but she also brings a powerful level of nuanced humility to this figure who has long been in the spotlight without much of a voice. Spaeny’s performance gracefully navigates Sofia Coppola’s grounded script that possesses an abundant amount of empathy for the woman at its very core, exploring the circumstances of Elvis and Priscilla’s love story from an observational point of view.
Likewise, Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi delivers a valiant performance as Elvis Presley. Elordi has no trouble capturing the singer’s signature charm and charisma, yet is not afraid to explore the more intense aspects of his character either. He approaches Elvis from the angle of a partner instead of a performer and is only seen on stage in one brief scene, reminding the audience of the icon’s gravitas as the narrative focuses entirely on his marriage behind closed doors. His voice sounds entirely innate and even Elordi’s resemblance to the King of Rock and Roll is uncanny at times as he too fully immerses himself in his own unique way. There’s no point in comparing Elordi’s take to Austin Butler’s Elvis as they’re each trying to accomplish different goals in their respective films.
As an executive producer, you can feel Priscilla Presley’s presence throughout. Her dream never turns into a nightmare, nor does her love ever fade, though it is a lifestyle that no longer possesses the ability to be seen through rose-tinted glasses or even camera lenses for that matter. No one living today knows Elvis and the complexities of his character quite like she does, which is why she maintains that he is the love of her life. This is not a movie made to perpetuate accusations, but rather to explore these intertwined souls in the most honest way possible.
Sofia Coppola opts to end Priscilla’s cinematic story the second she leaves the gates of Graceland, a place she entered as a girl and left as a woman. Set to the most affecting needle drop in recent memory, this final and momentous scene is where this ravishing twisted fairytale comes to a close and a woman finds self-liberation after coasting through life on love alone.