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Review: ‘Priscilla’ maintains focus without rose-coloured glasses

‘Priscilla’ tells the story of Priscilla Beaulieu and her relationship with Elvis Presley.

A scene from 'Priscilla'
A scene from 'Priscilla' courtesy of Elevation Pictures
A scene from 'Priscilla' courtesy of Elevation Pictures

‘Priscilla’ tells the story of Priscilla Beaulieu and her relationship with Elvis Presley, from their initial meeting to eventual divorce.

People often refer to “the woman behind the man,” attributing some of his success to her support. For better or worse, she may also find herself in the limelight, assessed on her sense of style and critiqued for her behaviour. Meanwhile, newspapers try to pry their way into their intimate moments and test the resilience of their relationship with slanderous headlines. The money and the glamour are not without their price, and sometimes the cost simply becomes too high. Priscilla is the story of the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll, chronicling her relationship with Elvis Presley.

In 1959, 14-year-old Priscilla’s (Cailee Spaeny) father was stationed in Germany during the war, in the same area as a 24-year-old Elvis (Jacob Elordi). When the local army’s entertainment booker approaches her in a restaurant and asks if she’d like to attend a gathering at Elvis’ house, she relishes the opportunity to meet the famous singer. She discovers they share feelings of homesickness and loneliness, in spite of Elvis being surrounded by his family and entourage. They begin dating and continue a long-distance relationship when he goes back to the United States, though she struggles with the headlines about him and his female co-stars. Eventually, Priscilla moves to Graceland to finish high school and they finally marry in 1967, quickly producing Lisa Marie. They’d eventually divorce in 1973.

Based on Priscilla’s memoirs, director Sofia Coppola creates the portrait of a teenage girl enamoured with a young man who would’ve been entirely out of reach had the war not fatefully brought them together. She clings to the fact that he chose her out of the many women he could’ve been with — a fact he reminds her of as well when she questions his commitment to her. While one wants to believe they shared a beautiful love, the biopic shows a girl who was groomed to be the ideal wife. Elvis dictated Priscilla’s style, what she was allowed to do, who she hung out with and where she was at any given time. She learned to manage his quick temper, but it’s sad to see her devotion rewarded so cruelly.

Notably, this is not a film about Elvis’ career or his music. Outside of entertaining family and friends, he doesn’t perform in the movie nor are his songs featured. The changes in his stage appearance (the unexplainable transition to jumpsuits) and behaviour due to prolonged drug use (uppers and sleeping pills were routine from day one) or his relationship with the Colonel (the only opinion he seems to value) are only relevant in how they affected his relationship with Priscilla since it’s her story. There was a time she would have done — and did do — anything for Elvis, yet Spaeny’s portrayal of the King’s wife is not of a victim. Coppola has a way of portraying women trapped in unbearable situations in a manner that allows them to maintain their dignity. Priscilla appears self-possessed, willing to make sacrifices to remain with Elvis — even if he never did the same for her. Consequently, Spaeny plays a woman who lived a life of concessions, until she decided to regain control.

Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi and Tim Post

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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