Standing in the Shadow of Elvis: Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla
Upon the release of her 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, Priscilla Presley sat down with Barbara Walters to explain her objectives in writing the book: “[Elvis] was a human being, that’s the aspect I’m trying to show. That’s all. That was the intent of the whole book: to show a love story, a man, a human. Not the performer, not the image, not the idol.” In many ways, this is also the aim of the average biopic: to pull back the curtain separating public from private, to reveal the “truth” behind legends and complicate accepted narratives. But while these films often promise nuanced portraits, few are willing to entirely eschew depictions of the most recognizable moments in their subjects’ lives, particularly for figures in entertainment: Lucy’s iconic grape-stomping bit proved irresistible for Being the Ricardos, Ana de Armas dons Marilyn Monroe’s pink Travilla gown for a rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Blonde, Rami Malek sits at a piano and plunks out the origins of the titular “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which had its North American premiere this month at the New York Film Festival, seems keen to avoid this somewhat predictable convention. Based on Elvis and Me and executive produced by Priscilla Presley, Priscilla explicitly takes on her point of view, focusing not on Elvis’s towering cultural legacy but rather on the artist at home, away from his adoring public and in the company of a very young woman who simultaneously loves and is exhausted by him. This structure doesn’t necessarily demand the film avoid his body of work, but the Presley estate essentially ensured that it would. Ever-sensitive to the protection of their brand, Elvis Presley Enterprises denied Coppola the rights to use his music in the film—a major constraint that nevertheless feels like a blessing in disguise. The closest Priscilla comes to reproducing the Elvis audiences will most likely recognize is a short, slow motion scene in which he dances as Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” plays (Elvis often utilized this as a walk out song, remixing it with his repertoire). Backlit by footlights, his audience is suggested by shadowy figures: no fainting fans, no close-ups of his sweaty brow, no gyrating hips. To see an Elvis movie without very much “Elvis” in it is a refreshing and welcome twist of perspective, particularly on the heels of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a stylistically dizzying yet structurally conventional overview that painstakingly recreated nearly every noteworthy performance in his career.
The film’s presentation as a domestic drama can also be read as a consequence of Coppola’s approach to the biopic genre, which tends toward deeply personal, rather than sociological, reflections. Given the two films’ literal and thematic similarities, 2006’s Marie Antoinette serves as a valuable point of comparison. The brewing volatility beyond the walls of Versailles occasionally rears its head, but is not meant to function as serious engagement with the politics of 18th-century France. In the same way, Priscilla periodically features paparazzi or squealing fans, but is not a statement about the press, fandom, or celebrity writ large. The unique, historical weight of her subjects is intentionally subjugated in favor of more universal questions of girlhood, especially those with which Coppola can personally relate. She said in a press conference at the Venice Film Festival: “When I read Priscilla’s story, I was so struck with how the setting is so unusual, but she goes through all of the things that all girls go through growing up into womanhood. She talks with detail and openness about her experience, her first kiss, becoming a mother, and all these moments in one’s life that I could relate to and I thought were universal but in this very unusual setting.”
Unencumbered by questions of how to showcase Elvis, Coppola can dive deeper into these often overlooked domestic narratives (the bulk of Priscilla plays out in about four minutes in Elvis), and draw out themes that commonly appear in her filmography—the lure of fame, the ennui of girlhood, sexual maturation. The audience meets a 14-year-old who, bored and lonely in her new life in Germany, pounces on the opportunity to meet her idol. She instantly falls head-over-heels for him, doodling his name in her notebooks and pinning pictures of him to her wall. Elvis reciprocates her feelings and continues to invite her to parties and on dates, which conjures suspicions and questions from the adults around them. Why would a 24-year-old man be interested in a ninth grader?
Coppola’s sensitivity to Priscilla’s teenage yearning yields a complex, rather than preachy, portrait of the budding relationship. After all, what teen girl wouldn’t be thrilled beyond belief if her famous crush paid her such attention? Isn’t going to Vegas with a superstar much more alluring than homework? By framing the logic of those temptations so clearly and whimsically, Coppola underscores how easy this kind of manipulation can be for a figure like Elvis. A starstruck teenager who had yet to determine her own identity, who ached to impress him and was inclined to believe him, might just do whatever he asked or be whoever he wanted her to be.
In Memphis, this dynamic takes overt shape. She is re-made in his image; her hair dyed black, her makeup exaggerated, her clothing kept decidedly print-less. Where she once occupied a typical teenage girl’s bedroom filled with knick knacks and posters evoking her personal style and taste, she sleeps instead in a dark, velvety room adorned with gaudy, sparkling art. Graceland, much like Versailles in Marie Antoinette, literalizes the “gilded cage,” with the mansion acting as the site of a part-time chamber drama. As production designer Tamara Deverell put it, “She was always a guest in the house. It was never really her place.”
The cage proves prescriptive in ways beyond conformity with Elvis’s aesthetic sensibilities. Everything she reads is about Elvis, they discuss his music, they watch him on TV, his friends become her friends (they’re the only ones allowed at the house). After Priscilla graduates from high school, the film plays out largely in a series of vignettes illustrating alternatingly troubling and joyous moments in their lives together—their marriage, the birth of Lisa Marie, experimentation with psychedelics, his infidelities. These scenes, often lifted verbatim from her memoir, concentrate exclusively on Priscilla’s direct interactions with Elvis or what she is thinking about him when he isn’t there. Priscilla’s isolation, immobility and lack of options are the point. She remains quite strictly defined by Elvis, which the film does not posit as a good thing.
But where the film quite successfully outlines her complete absorption into Elvis’s life at the expense of her individuality, it is less successful in detailing her emergence from it. Coppola gives such care and detail to Priscilla’s pining—unwrapping Elvis records, buying magazines with him on the cover—but loses that specificity in the film’s short third act. Events Priscilla describes in Elvis and Me as eye-opening, life-changing experiences, transpire in mere seconds in the film’s final few minutes. There’s aesthetic heft to Priscilla’s time with Elvis that this later montage also lacks. Her transformation into “Priscilla Presley” is the unveiling of an icon. With black hair dye running in the sink and hairspray dusting a bulbous beehive, the Priscilla the audience likely knows best has finally materialized. By contrast, her transformation into “Priscilla Beaulieu Presley” receives a much less ceremonious, much less romantic treatment, with new wigs appearing between the fading vignettes—not quite the purposeful abandonment of Elvis’s preferred style and the reclamation of self described in the book. In a film decrying Elvis’s domination of a young woman’s life, Priscilla’s independence still draws the short stick.
While Priscilla distances itself from certain aspects of the Elvis mythology in favor of an alternate perspective, it also can’t quite escape the appeal of that mythology. The roughly 14 years represented in the film, from Priscilla and Elvis’s first meeting in Germany in 1959 to their separation in 1972, constitute an implicit acknowledgement that most people are interested in Priscilla Presley only insofar as her relationship with Elvis is concerned. Priscilla herself realizes the scope of her persona and has learned to cope with that reality through a rigorous process of self-discovery, defining who she is for herself beyond Elvis’s ex-wife. That story has yet to be told in full.