Director Sophia Coppola gets points for taking an original approach to what is the latest in a long string of movies dealing with Elvis Presley. Her film is based on the book Elvis and Me written by Priscilla Presley that paints an edgier portrait of the rock-and-roll superstar.
The director then loses points for basing the movie on the book as it only offers one perspective on the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla that started when she was a teenager. This ends up being a “woe is me” tale where Priscilla – as played by Cailee Spaeny (“On the Basis of Sex”) – divides her time between being a googly-eyed teen and a neglected wife.
There’s no question Priscilla felt that way, but the film never tries to go below the surface to offer any insights into why there was so much joy and misery. Coppola throws in plenty of scenes of Elvis using drugs and adds a couple of scenes where he commits spousal abuse, but those moments never cobble together to tell a deeper story.
What Coppola has created as both the director and writer of the film is a glimpse into a personal diary. The film starts with Elvis – portrayed by Australian actor Jacob Elordi – becoming infatuated with Priscilla, a ninth grader living in Germany with her parents.
The film then meanders through an odd courting ritual where, for reasons not explained, the underage Priscilla is allowed to both date Elvis and eventually move to Graceland. Keep in mind this is a story based on Priscilla’s book and she served as an executive producer. The entire scenario of Elvis being a perfect gentleman with the teen comes across more like a fantasy than a deep dive into reality.
It is odd that while Coppola has a track record of making movies that feature decisive and determined women, “Priscilla” is void of such an approach. This Priscilla, as played by Spaeny, is one that wears melancholy like a badge of honor. Except for one moment, her performance plays very flat.
Spaeny picked up the award as best actress at the Venice Film Festival, but it must have been a thin year at the ceremonies. She does exude some on-screen charm and does a great job playing both a very young and more mature Priscilla. But this performance required no ability to emote.
Elordi becomes the latest in a long line of actors who have taken on the role of Elvis. His performance is one of the better ones as he ends up playing Elvis as a human and not a demigod. There are no wild body movements or elevated speech patterns. This is one of the most human portrayals of Elvis in film or on TV.
It all keeps circling back to this being a production based on the recollections of Priscilla, which come across as whitewashed. Maybe she was a young woman with no sense of self who only existed to be near Elvis. That would have been easy to appreciate if there had been a little perspective. The simple fact that the parents of a teenage girl would allow her to live with a man who reportedly had an active sex life should have been explored.
There is also the reluctance by Coppola to stain the mythology that is Elvis. Priscilla painted him as a minor villain of the story, but the dark side is never fully explored. He is shown introducing Priscilla to the world of recreational narcotics, an element that gets dropped without a full explanation.
Coppola comes up short in showing the rise and fall of Elvis. The film is focused on Priscilla but there should have been more done to illustrate how she either supported him or ignored him through a life of ups and downs. Instead, there are long scenes of them taking pictures, riding bumper cars and shooting at bottles.
Looking at the Elvis phenomenon through Priscilla’s eyes is refreshing. That would have made for an engaging tale of stardom vs. human contact. The continued practice by Coppola to pull away when moments got dark or to ignore those elements gives “Priscilla” a superficial feel influenced heavily by the person telling the story.
The film is currently playing in local theaters.
Cast: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Dominczyk.
Director: Sophia Coppola
Rated: R for language, drug use
Running time: 113 minutes.