By Tash Paul

This piece first appeared as a featured article in volume 95, issue two of Pelican. You can view our print archive here.

You know him as the King of Rock and Roll. A musical superstar. You’d likely know of his drug addiction struggles and highly documented death. The chaotic and glitzy high-budget musical biography Elvis (2022), directed by Baz Luhrmann, certainly depicts this. However, if you strip back the extravagant set designs and intense choreography, you’re left with a story that has been glossed over entirely in Luhrmann’s Elvis. The raw, real, and gripping story of Priscilla Presley.

Sofia Coppola’s biographical drama film Priscilla (2023), based on Priscilla Presley’s autobiography, “Elvis and Me”, proves not all that glitters in Elvis’s sparkling world of fame, is in fact gold. Cailee Spaeny takes the main stage, portraying the iconic superstar’s wife, whilst Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi takes his own spin on channelling Elvis.

Coppola’s Priscilla literally embodies the figure of speech ‘what happens behind closed doors’, with a tense, almost uncomfortably slow-paced narrative. This slow pace, however, is necessary, as it allows for detailed fragments of Priscilla’s quiet life as a mere bystander to Elvis’s spotlight to be at the forefront of the film.

Priscilla spans over fourteen years, firstly tracking Priscilla’s adolescent years in 1959 in West Germany, where Elvis sweeps her into a whirlwind romance. Fast-forward a few years, and picture Priscilla moving into Elvis’s Graceland mansion, a controversial eight-minute wedding, and a baby on the way. These events are all known in Elvis’s life, however, through Priscilla’s eyes, the tale of a young, ultimately naïve girl thrust into the role of a hollow housewife is presented. A woman bound to her husband’s stardom, suffocating in her aching loneliness. This is a jarring, but necessary juxtaposition to Luhrmann’s flashy Elvis, given Priscilla was merely Elvis’s obeying wife in the film. Priscilla’s gaze in this film is thus an enlightening change, unravelling a newfound perspective that looks beyond Elvis’s star status.

The value of ‘seeing’ Elvis through Priscilla’s eyes firstly allows us to focus on what we wish we could ignore, given the worldwide adoration for Elvis. The Presley pair’s infamous age gap. Elvis courts Priscilla when she is fourteen, and you can certainly understand Priscilla’s parents’ unease given Elvis was twenty-four at the time. Indeed, their relationship starts out innocently enough, with Elvis inviting schoolgirl Priscilla to various parties with his older friends. However, it is known that with age gaps come distinct power dynamics. Coppola exemplifies this with scenes of Elvis buying (and choosing) a new ‘suitable’ wardrobe for Priscilla, later suggesting she dye her hair black, wear heavier make-up, and get porcelain ‘caps’ on her teeth. Priscilla’s change in appearance to make her appear ‘older’ and ‘camera-worthy’ thus sees her ‘playing adult’ for Elvis as a teenager. The supposed logic is, if Priscilla acts mature, then their ten-year age gap isn’t an issue. However, when Elvis is away filming in Los Angeles, Priscilla inevitably reverts to a hopelessly in love schoolgirl, observing Elvis through magazines and waiting for his phone call. Coppola makes it clear Priscilla’s dependence on Elvis leaves her empty. Even when Elvis is present in their now shared Graceland home, he refuses to have sex with her, claiming she is ‘too young.’ The irony of this is blindingly clear, and his abuse of power thus manifests, with Priscilla, a young innocent schoolgirl, left under his control.

Coppola further depicts Priscilla’s dwindling sense of self and agency, becoming a too-young mother and housewife as Elvis tours, makes films and exhibits debauched behaviours. After the pair wed and Priscilla gives birth to Lisa Marie Presley at twenty-one years old, Priscilla essentially remains chained to the pair’s Graceland home. She isn’t allowed to work under Elvis’s request, and a maid assists her to raise her daughter in place of Elvis. To add to the gaping hole in Priscilla’s heart, gossip articles repeatedly declare Elvis’s supposed love affairs with his co-stars, something he denies when questioned. Towards the end of the film the tone thus shifts, as when Elvis is present, he is aggressive, argumentative, and often addled with drugs. The man Priscilla gave her childhood, her life up for, is unrecognisable. This is further clear in the film’s climax, where Elvis is sexually aggressive towards Priscilla, claiming ‘This is how a real man makes love to his woman.’ The cracks in their relationship materialise, and Elvis’s neglect and abusive behaviour towards Priscilla culminate to the point of no return. Priscilla files for divorce, and Coppola ends the film with Priscilla driving away from Graceland mansion, with her taking a breath of fresh air and experiencing freedom she’d desired for years. An ending well-deserved for Priscilla, who recognises the way she’d lost herself for years as she finally strives to reclaim her agency.

Overall, Coppola’s Priscilla is a complex film that outlines a young woman’s struggle for power in a relationship that is plagued with the unforgiving consequences of fame. It turns the tables on the classically known ‘Elvis and Priscilla’ romance, with Priscilla’s crucial perspective as fresh as the air she inhales in that concluding scene.

4/5 Pelicans  

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