In the world of biopics, scrutinizing the life of a notable figure is always an intriguing journey. Lessons are learned, secrets are unveiled, and a new perspective is formed. In the case of Sofia Coppola’s film Priscilla, I was left understanding about the life of Priscilla Presley through the prism of her relationship with famed rock and roll icon Elvis Presley. If the intention of Coppola’s journey of unpacking Priscilla’s life in this way on the big screen was the goal, she most certainly accomplished it. However, if Priscilla is meant to be a fully fleshed out biopic that has nuance, substance, and exposes the truth of this woman as a wife, mother, entrepreneur, and actor, the movie fails miserably.
As I mentioned before, the film’s narrative is shot through the spectrum of her courtship, relationship, and marriage to Elvis Presley. The A24 film, Priscilla, is not an origin story nor does it explore the life of Priscilla Presley after her divorce from Elvis. I learned about the former wife of Elvis, not by who her husband was, but by her role as Jane Spencer in the Naked Gun movies. Playing the love interest of Leslie Nielsen in the comedy franchise was the first time I came to know who she was as a public figure. Of course as I got older, and learned more about the life of Elvis and Priscilla, I realized there’s a significant history this actor has with one of the most popular musical performers of all time.
What I was expecting out of Priscilla was a profile on the life of this woman before and after Elvis. And perhaps my expectations were mismatched by the director’s and writer’s intent. However, assuming that I was coming in with the expectation that this story is solely based on Priscilla’s encounter and experiences with Elvis, I was still disappointed at how this story was told. Cailee Spaeny plays the titular role and while I think she’s a talented actor, her performance felt mediocre at best. It’s not a role that you will remember years later and think how captivating it was. Jacob Elordi (who I adore in Euphoria), was also one-note in his 2-dimensional depiction of Elvis. The only thing intriguing was hearing the Australian actor pull off a Mississippi accent. And even that came off as cartoonish at times.
The film starts with a young Priscilla Beaulieu who is introduced to Elvis through a mutual friend. What’s important to understand here is that Priscilla was 14-years-old when she met Elvis and he was 24-years-old at the time. What the movie drops the ball on is leaning into this detail. The only mention of Priscilla’s age in the film is that she is 17-years old during their courtship period. It is known that the two had a platonic relationship before marriage (this doesn’t make it any better) but the movie does examine this aspect of their relationship. Her parents, who are reluctant at first to have their daughter see Elvis, don’t stop her from seeing a man 10 years her senior. Meanwhile, Priscilla is hasty about getting serious with the rock star and wants to leave home to be with him. The story misses the opportunity to dig in more about why Priscilla feels so compelled to leave the comforts of her home to spend time with a man she barely knows. What was her home life like? Did her parents undermine her ability to be independent? What’s the backstory here?
There’s also what happens during her courtship with Elvis. During this time, Elvis is at the height of his career and becomes a Hollywood star. He’s starring in major motion pictures with big name talented actors like Ann-Margaret and Nancy Sinatra. The film shows moments Elvis spends with both women through tabloids reporting that he’s involved with them romantically. This stirs anger and insecurity that we see begin to escalate in Priscilla’s behavior. And while it is completely logical and valid to experience these emotions, the movie never gets to the root of why Priscilla feels this way.
When Elvis gaslights, condescends, and emotionally abuses Priscilla (even getting physical at one point) the story never takes a breath to reflect on what Priscilla is feeling during those moments. When there is an outburst of anger propelled in her direction by Elvis, the camera captures a moment of sadness on Priscilla’s face and cuts quickly to the next scene of Priscilla going about her day as if nothing happened. This misses the opportunity to delve deeper and peel off the layers of Priscilla’s psyche. Why does she elect to stay with Elvis after experiencing this abuse? Why does she decide to marry him after years of enduring this treatment? When Elvis tells her how to dress and how to wear her hair, as the viewer I want to know the root of Priscilla’s insecurity. How come she doesn’t fight back?
And the reason I want to see this is because this is Priscilla’s story.
It should be more than merely the story of Priscilla and Elvis. We’ve seen enough Elvis biopics at this point to know who this man was and what he went through. And while the grooming and gaslighting aspect of how Elvis treated women has largely been omitted from many of his biopics, this film still felt like it was yet another version of his biography. In other words, Priscilla Presley felt like a passenger in her own story — which is ironic since Presley herself, was an executive producer on this film. The script, also written by the film’s director Sofia Coppola, is based on the 1986 memoir Elvis and Me written by Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon. Both authors have a screenwriting credit for this film.
Not having read the book, I can only assume from the title that it is also written and told through the window of her relationship to Elvis. And that’s fair. But the title of this film — Priscilla — presents a false sense of what to expect from this narrative. The framing around this story being centered on their union is not primarily what disappoints me, but it’s the lack of storytelling through the lens of Priscilla. We don’t learn much about her outside of the abuse she endured while spending time with Elvis.
And speaking of abuse, along with the depiction of Elvis, his framing is not in the best light. While I have my own issues with Elvis and his cultural musical appropriation of Black artists which launched his career — fans of the rock star will not be pleased with how he’s portrayed. His own daughter Lisa Marie found the story to be “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous”. This is according to recently leaked emails sent to the film’s director. And while I personally think it’s important to show all sides of who Elvis was, I do think the film honed in a bit too much into how awful he was to her and less on the aftermath of what that kind of abuse did to Priscilla’s state of mind. And perhaps that’s why Lisa Marie had an issue with it because it was unbalanced and biased in that way.
Priscilla is soulless, bland, and lacks the introspection a notable figure like Priscilla Presley should be afforded in her first motion picture biopic. As someone who is exhausted with seeing yet another Elvis story, I was hoping Priscilla would offer a fresh take on that golden era of 60’s music, movies, fashion, and entertainment. Instead we got a woman held hostage in her own narrative, wrapped around a larger-than-life character that takes up so much space that Priscilla Presley’s history becomes a faint and distant memory.
Priscilla is currently playing in theaters.
What's Your Reaction?
Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.