As Priscilla, filmmaker Sofia Coppola’s engrossing new film begins, it’s 1959 and 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) is living in Wiesbaden, West Germany, where her stepfather, an Air Force captain, is stationed. Lonely for her friends back in Texas, Priscilla spends a lot of time painting her nails, spritzing her hair with Aqua Net, and reading fan magazines about the stars of the day, among them Fabian, Bobby Darin and that paradigm-shifting sensation, Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), who just happens to be in Germany, too, serving out his own military service.
This is a story about a time when people drank Coca-Cola from a glass bottle, and indeed, in the opening sequence, Priscilla, wearing a pretty pink sweater, is sitting at a drugstore counter, sipping a Coke with a straw. (Elvis drinks his Cokes with a straw, too.) A man approaches. Priscilla has caught the eye of a polite young Army officer (Luke Humphrey) who invites her to join him and his wife for a party in the coming weekend at the off-base home of his good friend Elvis Presley. He’s sure Elvis will enjoy meeting a young person from America, especially one from the South.
A 24-year-old man setting out to woo an adolescent girl is unsettling, then and now, but Coppola leaves judgment to the viewer, and instead holds tight to Priscilla’s worldview, as recalled in her 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me. Priscilla is rightly sure that her parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Domińczyk) will refuse to give her permission to accept the invitation, but they eventually give in. The polite officer wins them over. Riding in the backseat on the way to the party, her best coat buttoned up tight, Priscilla wears a pleased smile — not, one senses, because she’s on her way to meet a star, but because she won out over her parents. She’s 14, and set free suddenly, like a heroine in a story. That freedom will prove to be boundlessly enticing.
If the first half of Priscilla is about what happens when two young people ride fame and exhilaration into a marriage they’re not the least bit prepared for, and the second half is what happens when reality pops their balloon, as it were. The party Priscilla attends in West Germany is addictively fabulous, for her, and for us. There is Elvis, mad handsome, in a room that’s half-lit and warm, like a jazz club. Elvis is instantly charmed by Priscilla even as he realizes she’s absurdly young. Then he goes to the piano and, just for her, pounds out a thrilling, blistering “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and that, maybe, is the first time Priscilla realizes, “Oh, wow, I’m with Elvis.”
Elordi never sings again in the film, but in that one number, and in the ways in which his Elvis remains a brilliantly gifted, easily manipulated fool, he becomes an icon who’s more relatable than the version depicted in Baz Luhrmann’s over-amped Elvis. Coppola is interested in the star’s inner angst only insofar as it affects Priscilla, who is independent-minded enough to find her way to Elvis but not strong enough to prevent that rebellious spirit from being subsumed by his will. It will take Priscilla more than a decade to hear own voice again. Spaeny plays Priscilla from age 14 to 28, flawlessly, in a performance that seems likely to become a classic.
Much of the film is taken up with the minutiae of Elvis and Priscilla’s romance, which is interrupted by his remaining military service, Hollywood film duties and the need to win over her parents. Elvis begins taking prescription drugs to stay awake and go to sleep, and Priscilla begins popping them too, to keep up with him, to be a part of his world. They help her to transform into the glammed-out arm candy Elvis needs, even as their subsequent marriage and the birth of Lisa Marie eventually pull her back to Earth. She tries to grow up, to evolve, but he doesn’t. Increasingly miserable in his career, Elvis broods and becomes unpredictable. Suddenly angry, he strikes Priscilla, then rushes to apologize, saying, “You know I’d never hurt you in any real way.”
Like Coppola’s best films — The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette — Priscilla is evocatively tactile. Its rooms, from Priscilla’s teenage bedroom to Elvis’s club-like German digs to Graceland itself, are rich in detail and texture. We can feel ourselves in those rooms, alongside Priscilla, who likes to rub her toes in the shag carpeting.
Priscilla is partly a movie about the joy of being in exotic places you never expected to be in and the time it can take, the years even, before the moment arrives when you realize the room you once loved is now soulless and empty. You think, oh so clearly: I gotta get outta here. At age 28, Priscilla Presley lived that moment, got into her car and drove away from the land of plenty, making her a heroine worthy of a movie to call her own.
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