An Elvis film with none of his songs? BRIAN VINER reviews Priscilla

An Elvis film with none of his songs? BRIAN VINER reviews Priscilla, a love story that hits all the wrong notes



Elvis Presley fell for Priscilla Beaulieu when he was 24 and she was just 14. Even allowing for different eras, different sensibilities, it would be hard to tell that story without it seeming irredeemably creepy.

Sofia Coppola’s biographical drama Priscilla tries to do so, but fails.

Among its other failures, alas, is the music. The film is based on the 1985 memoir Elvis And Me by Priscilla Presley, who is also one of the executive producers, so Coppola was understandably all shook up when the Presley estate denied her the rights to play his songs.

Instead, her movie begins with Baby, I Love You by The Ramones, and ends with Dolly Parton singing I Will Always Love You. They’re great but they’re not Elvis. Indeed, the only time we get any real sense of his bewitching charisma as a performer is when Jacob Elordi, well cast as Elvis, does a Jerry Lee Lewis impression, hammering at the piano and belting out Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.

Nicely played: Cailee Spaeny is pictured as the young Priscilla 

Age gap: Elvis Presley fell for Priscilla Beaulieu when he was 24 and she was just 14

Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic Elvis, not blighted by such problems, is a whole lot better.

However, none of that stopped Priscilla from getting a rousing reception last night at the Venice Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. And it does at least tell Presley’s familiar story from a fresh perspective, that of his young bride, nicely played by Cailee Spaeny. It starts in West Germany in 1959, where Elvis, like Priscilla’s stepfather, is stationed with the US military.

Spotted by one of Elvis’s acolytes sipping Coke at a counter, Priscilla is invited to a party at the Presley home. Perhaps that is entirely innocent, but to suspicious minds it looks grimly like the sexual procurement of a minor. Later, Elvis asks her a rhetorical question: ‘Where have you been all mah life?’ It is only in the audience that the obvious, non-rhetorical response occurs: That she wasn’t alive for nearly half of it. Undaunted by her extremely tender years, Elvis the King, though temporarily deposed from his throne while he serves in the army, soon invites her upstairs and sobs about his homesickness and the recent death of his mother. ‘Ah wish my mama could’ve met you,’ he wheedles.

And again we think: why? All she has done is smile sweetly. Still, her young heart is touched and soon, so is the rest of her. Yet Elvis, as both the film and Priscilla’s memoir tell it, refrains from sex until they are married seven years later.

Actors: Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi in a scene from the new film Priscilla

Even when she is old enough, he tells her that her virginity is ‘sacred’ to him. We are perhaps intended to admire his gentlemanly restraint. But it just makes him seem weird and controlling.

Once Priscilla is installed at Graceland, back in Memphis, his possessive control-freakery gets worse. She is lavished with gifts – a poodle, a car, a gun – but told what she can and can’t wear. At her parents’ insistence, she attends high school, but must not bring friends home. And Elvis’s influence on her is baleful in other ways: he plies her with amphetamines, to keep her awake at school.

All this sounds interesting enough, yet it unfolds in a peculiarly anodyne manner. For large chunks of the film the screenplay might as well read: ‘Elvis blows his top, Priscilla is hurt, Elvis says ‘sorry, baby’. Repeat.’ Yet there are some eyebrow-raising episodes clearly based on fact, as when she is gifted a matching handgun for every dress. By this point, sanity has left the building.

Nonetheless, on and on we go, enduring this cycle of him being odd and her being long-suffering. They take LSD; he becomes obsessed with the teachings of a yogi; their daughter Lisa Marie is born; he has an affair with his Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Margret; eventually, Priscilla leaves him.

Coppola has said that she was inspired to tell this story partly by her own experience of growing up with a famous, rather overbearing father figure (her dad is director Francis Ford Coppola).

That’s understandable, yet it makes the result all the more disappointing. She’s a fine film-maker, but this is not a fine film — and it makes the viewer think that even if he couldn’t help falling in love with Priscilla, this rocker belonged in a jailhouse.

  • The UK release date is January 1, 2024.

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