When I reviewed Elvis, I mentioned a bunch of subjects that Baz Luhrmann’s biopic merely brushed past. One of those subjects was Priscilla Presley née Wagner. Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (based on the woman’s memoir) aims to correct that, but as unsatisfying as I found Elvis, the movie about his wife is unsatisfying in a whole other way. That’s not to say that it’s a waste of time, but my inner rock historian was hoping for something more.
Cailee Spaeny portrays her as a 14-year-old girl living in U.S. Army housing in Wiesbaden, West Germany when she meets Elvis (Jacob Elordi), who’s 10 years older and already famous as he fulfills his military service. The Missouri native Spaeny is 25 in real life, but she’s only 5’1” and looks convincingly like a preteen girl, and it’s surely part of the filmmakers’ intentions to make you feel queasy as the rock star woos her, ghosts her, pops back into her life after she graduates from high school, and proposes to her.
Spaeny’s performance is the best reason to see this movie, as she goes from a milkshake-sipping girl to finding the strength to leave her sinking husband and make a life for herself and Lisa Marie. Whether Priscilla is dropping acid with her husband or stewing over gossip magazines’ reports of Elvis’ rumored affairs in Hollywood with Juliet Prowse, Stella Stevens, Ann-Margret, et al., Spaeny’s alertness keeps the film from becoming some stuffy historical pageant.
Coppola aims to make a movie about the emptiness of a life where a woman’s material needs are taken care of but everyone views her as an attachment. (Indeed, the Elvis here, continually distracted by his career’s demands, comes off like Giovanni Ribisi’s character in Lost in Translation, except, y’know, he throws chairs at his wife’s head.) The point comes across, but it might have been more cogently made in a shorter film. Coppola did this whole thing better in her debut film The Virgin Suicides, whose self-deflating humor nicely countered its dreamy longueurs. Priscilla sports some gorgeous surfaces like all of Coppola’s other films, but it loses momentum as its heroine becomes more her own woman. The ideas are there, but a better dramatic shape would have given them more power.
Starring Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on Priscilla Presley and Sandra Harmon’s memoir. Rated R.