Film Review: Priscilla | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023  


Studio: A24
Director: Sofia Coppola

Oct 13, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is the ultimate antidote to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022). Here, you shouldn’t expect the typical musician biopic–Elvis may play a central role in the story, but he’s not a hero. Instead, Priscilla focuses on Priscilla Presley’s relationship with the King of Rock and Roll, simultaneously functioning as a biopic and a portrait of a toxic relationship. While Coppola’s film may not be perfect, it’s much more interesting and layered than most biopics.

Priscilla wastes no time diving into its narrative. The film begins when 14-year-old Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) meets 24-year-old Elvis (Jacob Elordi) through a mutual companion in Germany. Elvis is instantly attracted to Priscilla. He courts her, buys her presents and Priscilla quickly falls for the popstar–pining for him when he’s absent, paying less attention in school and worrying her parents, who wonder why Elvis won’t hang out with people his age. They talk intermittently for years, but their distance from one another limits their relationship. Elvis pays for Priscilla’s flight to Graceland, but vacations don’t make up for the lost time.

To amend this issue, Elvis convinces Priscilla’s parents to let her stay with him in Tennessee. He explains that Priscilla will go to a private school in the area and be cared for by his family and maids. Somehow, Priscilla’s parents agree. At 17 years old, Priscilla moves in with Elvis to his mansion. The rest of the film follows Priscilla as she navigates a complicated relationship with Elvis, becoming subject to his mood swings, addictions and aggressive personality.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Coppola directing Priscilla. Throughout her filmography, the director has constantly explored what it means to come of age depending on one’s character, surroundings and past experiences. Priscilla is no exception. The primary tension may be Priscilla’s and Elvis’ relationship, but the film’s underlying theme explores how Priscilla is robbed of her coming-of-age. Instead of taking part in her adolescence and discovering who she is, she is forced to confront problems meant for adults. On top of that, she’s constantly perceived as Elvis’ partner rather than her own person. The film works best when it explores these ideas, essentially becoming a story of Priscilla regaining her agency and understanding that she can take control of her narrative.

The film also takes bold risks, further setting it apart from the typical biopic. As mentioned earlier, Coppola does not paint a pretty picture of Elvis. After all, he’s not someone who merits an all-praising portrait–this was one of the problems with Luhrmann’s biopic. For much of the film’s runtime, Priscilla centers on an unstable relationship between two people, constantly crumbling because it was built on rocky foundations. The fact that it’s also a biopic raises questions about how we immortalize and idolize figures, overlooking important aspects of their personal lives because it’s easier to appreciate their works instead.

Because the film spends so much time exploring the pitfalls of their relationship, Priscilla can feel repetitive. There’s a vicious cycle constantly at play throughout the movie–Elvis snaps at Priscilla, he apologizes moments later and everything returns to normal. Repeating this trend throughout the film makes sense, as it complicates their relationship with each go-around. But, the amount of time dedicated to this cycle makes the film seem directionless, stealing the space from additional character development that could propel the story to more pronounced conclusions.

The film is watchable–its story is strong, its performances are great and its pacing is lightning-fast. But, by trying to avoid the typical biopic pitfall of giving too much information about a subject’s life, Priscilla suffers from the opposite problem. We almost don’t have enough information about her because we mostly only see her life refracted through her fights with Elvis. These problems don’t stop the film from being effective, but they impact its thematic resonance.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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