Review – Priscilla

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Overview

Synopsis The life of Elvis Presley's wife is explored from her first meeting with the famous rockstar to their divorce in 1972.

Length 1 hour, 53 minutes

Release Date October 27, 2023

 

Rating R

Distribution A24

Directing Sofia Coppola

Writing Sofia Coppola

Composition Phoenix, Sons of Raphael

Starring Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Domińczyk

The life of Elvis Presley will always be one of the most intensely studied, beloved, and controversial figures in 20th-century history. He was the king of rock and roll; he was idolized and beloved by women whom men wished they could enjoy a fraction of his wealth and popularity. He was humble enough to give much of his money away to his family but also lived lavishly and selfishly at times. He was a Catholic gospel singer who lived a life of pleasures and addictions. He wasn’t believed to be racist and yet is regularly accused of stealing his music from the Black music traditions of the South.

Elvis Presley was many things to many people, but he was also a husband and father. His personal life is well documented, and the stories of those who lived with him in the years up until his untimely death reflect a very messy and borderline abusive series of proclivities towards those around him; particularly his wife.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A few scenes of domestic violence and arguing.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language including f*** and G**d***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are frequently using drugs and alcohol abusively throughout the film.
Sexual Content: The film has hebephilic undertones, with a young adult man dating a high school girl, and several scenes of both characters in compromising positions. One character begs another for sex and is denied. Adultery is a theme throughout the film.
Spiritual Content: The characters are implicitly Catholic, attending a Catholic high school, and teach Sunday school lessons together.
Other Negative Content: Implications of immoral sexual desire and adultery.
Positive Content: Themes of honesty and what it means to realize you aren’t in a healthy relationship.

Review

When Priscilla Beaulieu met Elvis Presley in 1959, she was only 14 years old. The beloved musician and actor was already internationally renowned at the age of 24 but was serving out a two-year term in the military in West Germany after being drafted. The two would fall in love and be married in 1967 after he moved her to Memphis to finish out her high school education, marking just one of the multiple flings he is alleged to have had with high school girls during his career.  

This torrid and questionable romance is the subject of Sofia Coppola’s newest biopic Priscilla, which is based on Priscilla’s 1985 autobiography Elvis And Me. That pairing is brilliant, as Coppola has built a career depicting the challenges and frustrations of domestic life for women in films like The Virgin Suicides and On The Rocks. The real story of Priscilla Presley is tragic and frustrating. And given that the majority of online articles about it circle back to the #MeToo movement, it certainly feels like the film is trying to tie into something contemporary.

From the outset of the film, we’re introduced to Priscilla’s life of being constantly controlled by everyone around her. She lived in a military household with a stern 1950s father, where men need to personally ask him permission to go on dates. The majority of the film’s drama is rooted in her relationships with male authority figures, with actress Cailee Spaeny’s short stature being towered by her father and husband. Almost all of her interactions are rooted in negotiations between the male characters as to her fate, as they make decisions for her. 

It isn’t hard to notice what Sofia Coppola sees in the life of Priscilla Presley that needs to be said. Priscilla is a feminist drama, in which she dramatizes the way that she sees women getting trapped in cycles of dependency without the right to make their own decisions and fulfill their personal desires. Priscilla’s life alternates between the heights of drug-fueled joy and partying to the dulls of domestic loneliness, trapped in a birdcage as her life is completely defined by the demands and limitations of others. 

Coppola realizes most of the film in a foggy glaziness, creating a warm vision of the styles and aesthetics of the 1960s, but mostly keeping the camera at Priscilla’s height; looking up at the towering authority of those around her. It is told from the perspective of the female gaze, and nearly the entire film feels off-kilter, unsettling, and uncomfortable.

Jacob Elordi plays Elvis Presley as unstable and borderline abusive, prone to narcotic dependency and wild outbursts of violence whenever he doesn’t get his way. He’s so used to paying to get whatever he wants that any amount of resistance is met by toxic outbursts, thrown chairs, and even a few moments of physical violence against his loved ones. He’s depicted as selfish, demanding, adulterous, and willing to threaten divorce to his wife when she doesn’t meet his demands. In one scene, he asks for a temporary separation just after she announces she’s pregnant with Lisa Marie Presley.

Some of this is defensible in the abstract as Elvis is a celebrity and her safety and life are going to be affected by his, making it hard for her to go out in public, find a job, or make friends without causing disruptions to both their lives. But it is clear that his celebrity status is something he enjoys too much. He spends his nights partying with his bros and has illicit affairs with movie stars while he’s shooting movies. He wants a woman at home who does what he says and answers his phone calls on demand. His actions prove reprehensible and come at the cost of Priscilla’s dignity and happiness.

The depiction certainly hasn’t been without controversy. The Presley Estate slammed the film, with Elvis’ late daughter Lisa Marie Presley disputing the film’s depiction of her father. Priscilla Presley herself has praised the film’s accuracy and humanity, but many online feminist activists have argued the film is still too glossy in not depicting some of Presley’s more questionable relationship decisions.

The movie itself hits most of these themes hard with the subtlety of a mallet. While you cannot say the movie doesn’t portray most of its characters in an understanding or realistic light, it really doesn’t hold back with how it feels about them. It’s a very bittersweet experience; the kind of movie where a character getting divorced is the closest thing it has to any sort of climax or catharsis, and even that is impacted by just how sad and regretful all of the characters are. One can’t help but experience how much Coppola feels sorry for these characters.

As it stands, Priscilla makes a fascinating companion piece to last year’s Baz Luhrmann Elvis musical. If that film depicted just how deeply Colonel Tom Parker harmed Elvis by way of his demanding and greedy business practices, Priscilla shows how that bled down into every aspect of his life and hurt others reciprocally. Elvis is a coked-out three-hour drug trip through the highs and lows of stardom, and Priscilla is the quiet domestic drama about the ways powerful people hurt us when we rely upon them and let them be in control.

Positives

+ Great central performances
+ Powerful adaptation of Presley's autobiography
+ Beautiful cinematography

Negatives

- Some dark and unsettling subject matter
- Some blunt storytelling

The Bottom Line

Priscilla is a dark and dramatic look into the life of a figure who has largely been relegated to a secondary position in Elvis Presley's life, and shows just how painful and tragic their relationship together proved to be.

 

8.7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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