I don’t know why, exactly, we’re seeing such a strong output of Elvis Presley-related movies recently between Elvis and Priscilla. Whatever the reason, it’s allowed me to see two completely different approaches to the king of rock that I find fascinating.
Last year, Baz Luhrmann’s depiction of Elvis was full of bombast and energy that portrayed him in a sympathetic light. He was a man who had lost control of his life and was being manipulated by someone else for their own financial gain at the cost of Elvis’s well-being. The film never stopped being entertaining though to the point where it scored several Academy Award nominations across the board, although it won none of them. I can’t say the same will happen for Sophia Coppola’s rendition of the Elvis Presley story, though this time it’s from the perspective of his wife Priscilla Presley, and it at least attempts to try something different. I mean, it doesn’t work, but an attempt is an attempt.
Priscilla is a weird movie. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s so dull and static that it almost forgets to actually say anything about either Elvis or Priscilla. When it does have something to say, it does so quickly and bluntly and forgets that it already made its point some time ago, leaving me wondering why this had to be a feature-length film.
Director: Sophia Coppola
Release Date: November 3, 2023 (Theatrical)
Try to be surprised when I tell you that Priscilla goes through the life of Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny), starting with her introduction to the famed musician while he’s in the military in the 50s until she leaves him in the 70s. Elvis (Jacob Elordi) isn’t as sympathetic as he was in Baz Luhrmann’s film, being shown as kind-hearted at first but then quickly showing his true colors once he’s out of the military. From there, the movie floats in between showing scenes where Priscilla and Elvis are in love with each other followed by the emotional and physical abuse that Elvis put her through.
Now I’m not an expert when it comes to whether a movie like Priscilla is 100% accurate in its depiction of this real-life couple, but what I can say is that regardless of whether the events of the film are true or not, the movie still needs to be engaging. For the first half of the movie, it’s interesting at numerous points. We see Priscilla evolve from being a reclusive high school girl into a glamorous woman who loves the life of luxury she wound up in as we see many of the cracks begin to form the more she stays in Graceland. Whether it’s from seeing the boys’ club mentality that Elvis’s band projects or how people will subtly advise her not to do basic things because of how they could damage Elvis, there’s a creeping sense of unease the more time we spend in Graceland with the Presleys.
At times, this is due to Elordi’s performance as Elvis. He’s able to flip between multiple different emotions on a dime and show the many flaws that Elvis had as a person. He often undermines Priscilla’s own agency, lies to her multiple times, frames it as her being paranoid, and refuses to take any criticism or advice from her. I like how his Elvis is removed entirely from the glitz and glamor of the stage since we never see him perform once. Instead, we’re only told about how famous he is as we see him leave for a tour or movie production. He calls home a few times, but it’s clear how his personal relationship with Priscilla simultaneously evolves and devolves the more time they stay apart from each other.
But that’s kind of the issue with Priscilla. For as much insight as this movie may show about Elvis and his behind-the-scenes relationships, this is ultimately Priscilla Presley’s movie and she’s barely a presence. When a scene is centered on her, she sinks into the background and instead gets swallowed up by either the tone of the scene or the performances around her. I don’t really think this is because of Spaeny’s performance since she does a fine enough job and makes the most of the role. I think it has more to do with how the script just doesn’t know what to do with itself for most of the film’s runtime, turning Priscilla into a side character in her own movie.
There are only so many times the same two scenes can be repeated and the same two messages can be conveyed to the viewer. Most of the scenes in the second half of the film either show Priscilla being undermined by Elvis or Elvis gaslighting her and Priscilla just taking it. After a while, it makes the movie seem stagnant and comes across as if it ran out of ideas the second Priscilla begins to suspect Elvis was cheating on her. By the time the film limply makes the exact same point in its climax and then unceremoniously ends, all I could think about was how little actually happened in the movie.
There are some moments of depth within the film, but a lot of Priscilla’s composition feels scattershot. There are so many scenes that fade to black after they conclude, making me think that Coppola didn’t know how to make these scenes tie into the larger plot or connect to whatever is happening overall. Plenty of scenes also come across as vignettes that are almost never addressed. Towards the end of the film, we see Priscilla begin to take up karate, followed by a brief scene that doesn’t even last for half a minute where she talks with a group of people over lunch about how she broke her karate master’s nose. To an outsider, this scene has no purpose and doesn’t do anything to affect the plot. To insiders who know that the karate instructor was Mike Stone, Priscilla’s lover, it’s baffling how none of it is ever brought up and just left for viewers to piece things together on their own.
I have nothing against a movie making a viewer think and having them read between the lines. When it’s done well, moments like that can offer a lot of insight into a character’s thoughts or actions. In fact, Priscilla has a moment that shows why less is more is sometimes a great thing. In one scene, we see Priscilla plead with Elvis to give up reading Hippie spiritual texts, to which he quietly ignores her, but after a phone call from Colonel Parker, we then cut to him standing next to Priscilla as he burns the books quietly. That’s a great moment, but every major moment is presented just like that, leading to diminishing returns. Variety is the spice of life after all.
But Priscilla doesn’t have much if any spice. It’s bland and tasteless, losing flavor shortly after you start getting into it. In many ways, the film is like the relationship between Priscilla and Elvis. At first, it’s sweet and full of life and feels good, but it eventually loses its flavor and you’re just chewing on something that has nothing left to it. It only gets worse when you realize that you can’t spit it out and have to endure the bland flavor for what feels like way longer than you should. When you do spit it out, you quickly forget about it and it doesn’t leave any impact on your day and life. If you’re going to see one movie about the life and times of Elvis Presley, make it Elvis, since at the very least, that movie is entertaining and has flavor to it.