Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia is a slick writer-director who specializes in lavishly decorated, empty-headed biopics about lavishly decorated, empty-headed people, i.e. Marie Antoinette and now Priscilla Presley. Since we already had the surprisingly fact-filled Baz Luhrmann epic Elvis last year, there isn’t much more to say about the chicken-lickin’ backwoods hillbilly with the palpitating pelvis that hasn’t been said already, so Coppola’s aptly-named Priscilla proves it by making Elvis a secondary character and concentrating on his child bride instead.
PRISCILLA ★★ (2/4 stars)
Based on her one-dimensional book Elvis and Me, the movie is a superficial chronicle of minutiae in the life of a naive girl, blinded by phony illusions of glamour, longing for affection from a child-man who never grew up, and trapped behind closed doors of toxic fame from Hollywood to Graceland. In the darkness beyond the klieg lights, it wasn’t much of a life—and it’s not much of a movie, either.
When she was 14 years old, Priscilla met her idol in postwar Germany. He was already a film star serving privileged time in the U.S. army between pictures, and stationed on the same military base as her father, who was stupidly in awe of the rock star himself—enough to encourage and approve of his daughter’s childish infatuation. Priscilla was in the ninth grade, and nobody seems to have ever heard about the laws against child pornography. In record time, Elvis had her guzzling champagne, wrapped in mink and knocking back sleeping pills. The film is vague about the annoying way it jumps around in time frames, so one minute she’s not yet in high school, and the next minute she’s living it up in Vegas and piling on the chips at the roulette wheel—all under the permissive eye of her father.
Elvis indulged her with evening gowns, drugs, and sports cars, and nobody objected when she graduated from high school by cheating on her exams. The Presley estate refused permissions to the hit records, so there are no revelations about his music or what a lousy actor he was, and his complex relations with Colonel Parker are scarcely even mentioned. Nothing in Coppola’s script, in fact, displays much significance about the Elvis career. Instead, it makes every effort to paint the portrait of a loving husband bordering on sainthood. He sleeps with women and doesn’t know the meaning of the word “faithful,” yet shows no interest in sex. When a heartbroken Priscilla confronts him with explosive news stories and escalating fan-mag articles about his turbulent affair with Ann-Margret, he even blames his Viva Las Vegas co-star for exploiting him!
The Elvis the world now knows so much about from more revealing books with more integrity written by real investigative reporters makes the adolescent gushing in Priscilla seem dewy-eyed and silly. She sugarcoats the character of the movie Elvis with so much reverence that he comes off like an angel that has been dislodged from a Christmas tree. The bad stuff—the LSD, the physical abuse that ended in beatings, and the drug addictions that bloated Elvis into a fun-house mirror reflection—came later. By the time they finally marry and daughter Lisa Marie is on the way, he is so insecure he dumps her. In the huge but underdeveloped title role, Cailee Spaeny, a pretty but seriously inexperienced actor, goes through the movie in a trance, never really registering much emotion of any kind.
I don’t expect the same uncanny resemblance to the real Elvis that the phenomenally talented Austin Butler brought to Elvis in 2022, but Jacob Elordi, who plays him here, is not even remotely reminiscent of the real deal. He’s too gentle, too handsome, and amazingly lacking in any actual range to make the mood shifts convincing. If you believe the Elvis concocted by Sofia Coppola, he wanted to become a member of the Actors Studio and a method actor like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Never happened. It’s especially disconcerting to see Elordi in so many random shots with photos of the actual Elvis. He admirably eschews the caricatures embodied by masses of Elvis imitators—but at the same time, he captures none of the authenticity or magnetism with which the monstrously overrated Presley captivated his fans. For Spaeny, the role of an ignorant girl—toxically hypnotized, sexually exploited, and finally mentally and physically abandoned—is alarmingly too far from her grasp to amount to much more than just another pretty face.