Can't help falling in love with 'Priscilla' and its ideal cast, subtle direction, eye-popping production designs
“Priscilla” — ★ ★ ★ ★
Few Hollywood biographical dramas pack the risky level of exploitative and sensationalistic naughtiness nimbly negotiated in “Priscilla.”
For starters, the well-known story starts with a 24-year-old rock 'n' roll superstar romancing a naive 9th-grade student on a U.S. military base in West Germany.
He gives her pills to keep her awake in school.
He eventually marries her after whisking her off to his Tennessee castle where she spends the next decade as a sad, virtual prisoner in a gilded economic and emotional cage, while he shares burning love with his movie co-stars.
In the hands of a male director — say someone like Roger Corman — this movie, based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 autobiography, could easily have left audiences feeling all shook up by a Lolita-like luridness on a collision course with post-#metoo sensibilities.
Instead, writer/director Sofia Coppola transforms “Priscilla” into a stunning, opulent and nuanced love story steeped in sincerity, betrayal and disappointment.
Coppola conjures up some slick cinematic alchemy with her leading actors Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi as Priscilla and Elvis, who come off as two kids stuck in a bizarre form of perpetual adolescence.
They meet in 1957 at a U.S. Air Force base where Elvis is stationed. A soldier who says he's pals with the future king invites her to a party to meet him.
Her wary parents object, but become persuaded that their daughter will be well-chaperoned.
Priscilla, wearing a clunky, inexpensive dress, first sees Elvis on a couch. Elordi, a 26-year-old Australian actor from the TV series “Euphoria” and the “Kissing Booth” films, doesn't look much like Elvis (as Austin Butler did in Baz Luhrmann's “Elvis”).
But the moment he speaks and that liquid blend of soothing sound and folksy sincerity pours out, Elordi claims the character as his own.
Elvis' innate sadness over the death of his beloved mother, Gladys, seduces Priscilla. She can't help falling in love.
And Elvis remains quite the gentleman who assures wide-eyed, cowed Priscilla there won't be any funny business. She has no idea this will come back later, not in a good way, as Elvis never promised not to be a hounddog.
Here, the King is relegated to a supporting role in a drama not about him, but focused on the feelings and observations of the titular character. This movie appropriately begins with her meeting the singer, and ends the moment she finally leaves the King's mansion in Memphis.
Spaeny propels her character on an impressive marathon arc, from a teen's quiet restlessness to a disillusioned wife and mother slowly being crushed by a control-freak husband who dictates what she wears, how she looks and gives her pills to minimize resistance, even when he's off on a movie set for weeks with New Trier High School grad Ann-Margret.
Coppola, who directed an earlier movie about a teen girl metaphorically trapped in a castle (2006's “Marie Antoinette”) luxuriates in the world of Priscilla Presley with eye-popping production designs, costumes, perfumes (Chanel No. 5, anyone?), hair styles, TV shows, commercials, props and impeccably selected rock tunes, all rendered in such detailed period authenticity, you'd swear her cast and crew had access to a time machine.
Coppola directs her own screenplay to “Priscilla” with wry understatement and zero hyperbolics. She continues to evolve as a master storyteller allowing each scene to play out at its own most advantageous pace while maximizing emotional impact.
Even if you know this story, Coppola never telegraphs what happens next, supplying the episodic “Priscilla” with a sense of discovery in lieu of an almost nonexistent plot.
“I want a life of my own,” a self-aware Priscilla says in a now-or-never moment.
The once shy girl could not have anticipated how the palatial Graceland might one day become her personal heartbreak hotel.
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Starring: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Dagmara Dominczyk, Ari Cohen
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Other: An A24 theatrical release. Rated R for drug use, language. 113 minutes