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REVIEW – “Priscilla”: Coppola Turns Presley Biopic into a Daring Escape

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Credit: A24

Focused character perspectives can be a mighty thing when used in film, especially when walking under the shadow of a hero whose stardom was already shown beyond extravagance, and the bar is raised to an extreme high. What writer/director Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks) accomplishes in her latest film, to surpass and distinguish away from an incredibly unfair comparison is jaw-dropping. Something Baz Luhrmann could only achieve with his fanciful, accurate emulation of Elvis’s performance craft. What we see with Priscilla is a far more consistent, if not also tender and intimate expose of a life not so private and perilous, but no less redeeming in disrupting a faulty ego.

Adapting from the titular subject’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, Coppola is prompt to take the high road, charting Priscilla Beaulieu’s (Cailee Spaeny) teenage crush on one Elvis Aaron Presley (Jacob Elordi) from its humble, star-crossed origins. The pair first met in 1959 at a party in Germany, while he and her father (Ari Cohen) were stationed on duties for the Air Force. It takes only a small nudge for the two to strike a long-distance friendship, her swooning crush mirroring that of millions of high school girls following along with his charisma, dance prowess, and singing chops. Only it’s a much closer thing, which her folks begrudgingly support, despite the stark age difference, Elvis being ten years her senior.

From here, their relationship weathers the flashiness of the singer’s Memphis home, endless projects, middling grades, prescription drug abuse, friendly gunplay, a brief tryst with transcendental meditation, and rumors around multiple flings on the road. Predominant amongst them, is the ill-fated 1963 affair with actress Ann-Margaret. And through all these benchmarks fraying an otherwise adorable puppy-love relationship between music icon and small-town girl, the latter proves her resolve as much as her naive curiosity. She still feels he’s the one to light up his life, but even the truest of loves can falter under mistrust and infidelity.

Only the lack of moral scruples in Elvis’s mentality can shine a spotlight on him with this interpretation of fractured domesticity. In Coppola’s hands, paying utmost respect and faithfulness toward the spouse’s written accounts, he’s a mere second or third banana. A pawn crafting his undoing, oblivious to his actions until the final thread unravels. Elordi is no slouch with this idea, his idea of generating a titan softened by romance, still weighed down by his smidgeon of hubris miles ahead of the next comparable challenger. A subtle performer right up to a varying degree, unafraid to exude sly charm, jockish confidence, or untested rage with poetic dexterity. Not that the factor of his public visage or musical ability is completely ignored or eliminated, we see evidence in the briefest glimpses. That’s only due to a lack of approved clearances from Presley’s rightsholders. In turn, a welcome blessing for Coppola, a note of guidance to take a different path beyond the familiar biopic.

Credit: A24

What we see with Priscilla is purely her accounts, her perspective of how the marriage went, observing, emoting, and strategizing a long game with and later against her partner. Under Coppola’s eye, it’s rambunctious, often anarchic, entirely anachronistic with a candy-coated sheen. While production designer Tamara Deverell (Nightmare Alley) and costume head Stacey Battat (Gloria Bell) take dramatic strides to nail that 60s aesthetic – including the sophisticated yet idiosyncratic allure of Graceland, Coppola bucks the trend by leaning more into the air of liberation, with a rock-synth intensive soundtrack anchored by the synth-pop strains of Phoenix, Sons of Raphael, and needle drops ranging from the Ramones to Dolly Parton. To defy, ignore the rules as she does is no new hat; if nothing else, her filmmaking identity is once more assured. And here, speaking as someone very new to Sofia’s filmography, it’s nothing less than revelatory.

Much like the book would chart music history, the film eschews that in favor of focusing simply on the players, on people working through relationship issues, and being human when they know efforts fall short beyond a graceful escape. Yes, it is possible, that a film adapting the quieter side of Elvis’s life story manages to eventually forget the whole “pop culture icon” aspect. Stripping away the fame, fortune, hip-gyrating, and much of the flirting (it’s never seen straightforward), we’re observing only a relationship at its splashy, cutesy highs, and its dicey, unpredictable low.

A relationship where both participants relish in each other’s company, ponder the future, and maintain enough common sense to preserve certain boundaries, while heads stay firmly in the clouds. Priscilla’s more aspirational with the hope of seeing the wider world, Elvis the logical one reinforcing house rules and certain sacred creeds – no consummation before marriage and staying homeward to maintain a substantial presence and a low profile. We may explore both sides of their affinity, but the larger star’s pull and influence completely fade in Spaeny’s presence, never specifically vying or fighting for key attention as much as she is naturally gravitating around it.

Credit: A24

The up-and-comer’s portrayal is just as much to thank for that, only solidifying her wide-awake dream before it marches into a living nightmare. Soft-spoken yet affirming, wayward yet determined, both her voice and composure are what cleverly and indicatively cut through the noise, the harshness, and the confinement instilled by her counterpart, as she revolves in his orbit, and later rebels in complete, period-accurate bravado by way of big hair. Spaeny needs only a focused glare and a perceptive mind to bring her colleague’s ego down to size when big hair can only briefly challenge the one-foot height difference between them. Seeing her on screen might not always come off as crafty or ulterior in the same factor as her director, but small steps do build up an impassioned upper hand against the other’s volatility. Her performance, for all its rigor, warmth, and inquisition, is one that certainly stands out among the year’s best, the most commendable.

How Miss Coppola constructs this fictionalized account of a relationship broken before it had a chance to take root is, at worst, shameless. At best, it’s endlessly fanciful and untethered once its best ideas fall into place. Priscilla sees her and Spaeny wasting no momentum to pay assentful respect to an unsung hero while cautiously slaying The King. The pair knock him down to the level of a court jester with all his foolishness, stepping in with roguish optimism, breaking out with dignity and good nature fully intact. Nothing unlike what the director’s done times over, crafting heroines who battle challengers in an unfiltered manner. The type who can enjoy the fleeting ride, maturing along with its bumps and diversions but always knowing just when to disembark. It’s a bit more iconic here, as much as the real-life figure on display. (A-; 4/5)

Priscilla, after initial debut in NY and LA, expands into wide release November 3; rated R for drug use and some language; 110 minutes.