'Priscilla' (dir. Sofia Coppola) Film Review | JG Review
Updated: Oct 4
Priscilla, dir. Sofia Coppola (113mins) | Releasing January 5th 2024
I seem to be making a habit of introducing my film reviews with gentle musings on various hangovers, but surely any other mode of arrival to the fabled Graceland would be improper? To be true, last night's work drinks clouded my bus ride into town as I prepped myself for my first press screening at this year's BFI London Film Festival, and I almost thought I wouldn't make it in when I saw the length of the queue winding round the block.
The Coppola name alone is enough to entice a wide audience, but Priscilla promised to be a feather-ruffling palette-cleanser when its trailer dropped in the wake of Baz Luhrmann's Elvis; "where Baz Luhrmann's Elvis omitted key, ethically grey details from his past in service of a more gracious biopic retelling, Coppola is telling the true untold story of the personal life of the most important person in the King of Rock's orbit," (GQ's Lucy Ford).
Indeed, the elephant in the corner of Luhrmann's bedazzled frame was the ten year age-gap between Priscilla and Elvis, which saw the former pursued by the massively influential pop-star when she was in 9th Grade, only 14. And while I think it's bold for anyone to credit any biopic as an arbiter of "truth," I do believe that Coppola's sometimes-scathing depiction of 'the King' demands a refreshing (and uncomfortable) re-evaluation of his legacy--what else could you expect from industry vet, Sofia.
To focus on Elvis, though, would be to rob this film of its identity. Priscilla is, when removed from its context, a funny, touching, horrifying, shocking and visually indulgent narrative tragedy about a young girl who meets her idol, only to be manipulated, loved, discarded and belittled until unrecognisable even to herself in the mirror. The film presents a brutally candid depiction of grooming, trauma-bonding, emotional and physical abuse, all depicted with a profound sense of respect to not just Priscilla but to the actress who portrays her: the relative newcomer Cailee Spaeny.
At 25 years old, Spaeny is only one year younger than her cast-mate Jacob Elordi – starring here as Elvis - but at 5ft1 (and through the eye of Coppola's camera), the actress looks sickeningly infantile next to Elordi's towering frame. Her understated performance is quite incredible, and had me gripped from beginning to end. Indeed, both leading actors managed to effectively depict these bastions of modern myth without entering 'SNL territory', where pastiche trumps performance (if you'll pardon the Baldwin pun).
My own experience watching the film was a curious one. I was seated next to an elder heterosexual couple, both dressed in vintage clothing—clearly fans of the Graceland aesthetic. The lady, directly to my left, found Priscilla quite funny and laughed at almost every red-flag or example of manipulation inflicted by 'the King'. It was the sort of boys-will-be-boys knowing laughter you might assign to the sentiment of 'oh...men...what are they like!', but in truth I found it quite alarming.
I suppose this speaks to the film's uncontrived approach to its depiction of the titular relationship; Coppola's frank direction doesn't make a spectacle of Elvis' violence, nor does it underpin moments of distress with screeching strings or the beats of a doom-laden MPC. There is, instead, a calm frankness to Coppola’s exploration of this relationship. A sort of passive eye is applied to moments where Priscilla's husband and parents repeatedly fail her, and similarly to the more 'romantic' moments shared between the pair.
This might speak to the influence that Priscilla Presley herself had over this film—the 78-year-old serves as an executive producer to the project, and I do wonder how much influence her presence had on the curation of the script; Priscilla recently referred to Presley as “the love of [her] life”, and said she feels “protective of [her] relationship with Elvis” as recently as 2022. Priscilla’s direct involvement with the film hasn’t put the singer's estate at ease, however—Coppola was not granted permission to use Elvis’ music in this film, even though Luhrmann had carte blanche to do so.
Still, to myself and to the majority of viewers at my screening, Elvis’ ethics (or lack thereof) were evident from beginning to end. But while I found myself repeatedly grimacing at the dysfunction and turmoil on-screen, Coppola’s Priscilla is so masterful in its direction, writing, production, cinematography and performances that I felt genuinely disappointed when it ended. This is the sort of film that makes me fall in love with the medium, and the sort of film I wish I could make if I had the technical capabilities and confidence. Thanks to its lavish visuals and gripping script, I could have basked in Priscilla’s glow for at least another hour.
As the lights came up in the BFI Southbank, and the red curtains closed over the credits (a visual itself which felt Graceland-kitsch), the film received a round of applause from the critics I’d been queuing with round the block just two quick hours earlier. Granted, we didn’t quite match the 7-minute standing ovation which Priscilla received this summer in Venice, but I’ve been giving it a mental round of applause that hasn’t quite ended yet—still thundering on as I type up this review in the National Theatre café. I’d posit that the first half of Priscilla is perfect cinema, with its pacing faltering only slightly as it reaches it’s inevitable conclusion.
In short, Priscilla is a stunning, intelligent film which deserves to be seen in the cinema. I can’t wait to pay it another visit when it releases wide on January 5th, 2024.
Written by James Green