Cinematic Releases: Priscilla (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of A24

Priscilla Presley’s controversial 1985 memoir Elvis and Me: The True Story of the Love Between Priscilla Presley and the King of Rock N’ Roll became one of the defining textbooks on the history of being married to Elvis Presley.  Though there have been numerous Elvis biopics in the past including Elvis by John Carpenter with Kurt Russell in the role as well as a 1988 two-part ABC miniseries adaptation of Elvis and Me directed by Larry Peerce starring Susan Walters as the titular Priscilla Presley.  

With Baz Luhrmann’s recent gargantuan hyperkinetic Elvis biopic with Austin Butler, it was only a matter of time before the powers that be reignited interest in all things Elvis related, leading to a more formal big-screen adaptation of Elvis and Me filtered through the prism of female writer-director Sofia Coppola’s own feminine brand of epicurean hedonism with the Cailee Spaeny starring Priscilla now in theatrical release from A24. 

While clearly a biopic chronicling Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny in a Volpi Cup winner for Best Actress) and the complex, tumultuous and often solitary coexistence with her husband, rock legend Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), make no mistake this is writer-director Sofia Coppola’s film chronicling the isolation, fast lane rock star lifestyle and stages of womanhood ala The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antoinette replete with anachronistic uses of modern electro music and elliptical, understated editing.  Though Elvis sings sometimes at group gatherings or on stage, the film avoids using his music or commenting on his stage presence.  Rather it perceives everything through the limitations of Priscilla’s sheltered perspective who gradually begins to fight for her own identity and understanding of the gravity of the situation she is in.

The polar opposite film of Baz Luhrmann’s flashy, kaleidoscopic vision, opting instead for modest soft quiet occasionally punctuated by Elvis singing or Priscilla raising her voice to her husband, Priscilla is notable for having a more reserved but no less visual aesthete lensed beautifully by recurring Coppola collaborator Philippe Le Sourd of The Beguiled and On the Rocks.  The subtle electronic score by Phoenix and Sons of Raphael is understated and even when things do get noisy the volume levels remain conspicuously low.  

The reason to see the film more than anything is for Cailee Spaeny’s breakout performance as Priscilla Presley who conveys onscreen her mixed feelings that percolate over the course of the movie.  Soft natured with a sense of longing about her face as she is dragged from one social excursion to the next, booked on overnight flights in and out of the state who only becomes irate when the affairs start happening, Spaeny’s performance is sure to garner an Oscar nomination at the height of Awards season.  Also strong in an understated performance is Jacob Elordi who doesn't quite look like Elvis but sounds a lot like him from the way he speaks to the occasional times he sings.

Both a companion piece and antidote of sorts to Luhrmann’s Elvis and a continuation of the themes of female longing and oppression generated by Sofia Coppola’s ever-expanding oeuvre, Priscilla while functioning as a historical drama is something of a mood piece.  The attention to details while important over time become secondary to the overall tone and feeling Coppola is trying to convey through her protagonist.  Spaeny’s performance is great and Coppola’s choice to get involved in historical drama again offers a healthy alternative to the excesses of the Luhrmann effort in favor of something a bit quieter with more room to reflect on the lives being lived.  Not the definitive word on Elvis Presley but for Priscilla herself, it winds up being something of a catharsis.

--Andrew Kotwicki