7 Feb 2024

Review: Priscilla

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 7 February 2024

The story of Priscilla – the former child bride of Elvis Presley turned celebrity and for a while, popular film and TV star – is essentially one of expectations met.  

Once you know it’s directed and co-written by Sofia Coppola you pretty much know what to expect. Coppola seems to have been making the same movie most of her career.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla. Photo: Screenshot

The story is usually that of a young girl who marries someone successful, only to be ignored – trapped in a gilded cage. 

That was certainly the case in Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and unsurprisingly in Priscilla. It’s one of the best-known bits of the Elvis story.

Like Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy Elvis a year or so back, Priscilla has minimal interest in Elvis’s music, which for me was the one saving grace of the whole Presley industry.  

His actual life story was often quite peculiar – the mother fixation, his abandoning of decent music for terrible movies, the sinister influence of his manager, the Colonel. His marriage was just a part of that.

If you’re new to the Elvis story, his career took off spectacularly in the late ‘50s with some terrific records and a dynamite stage show. Then he got called up and served in the army for a year or so in Germany. 

Where he met the daughter of another serviceman. Her name was Priscilla Beaulieu, and she was 14 years old.

So of course, the question on everyone’s mind is a variation of “what’s going on here?” She’s 14, he’s 24 and the King of Rock and Roll at the very start of the rock and roll business.   

In fact, Priscilla’s dad does ask that question.

And the answer – in real life as in this movie – is the rather unsatisfactory “don’t worry about it”. 

Having corralled Priscilla to himself during his time in Germany, Elvis returns home, telling the teenager to wait for his call.

And two years later, that call comes. Priscilla is invited to come and stay at Graceland, Elvis’s mansion.

To assuage any lingering concerns from Mr and Mrs Beaulieu, once again Elvis – “E” to his Memphis buddies – tells them not to worry about it.

And if you believe Priscilla, no creepy, underage hanky-panky actually takes place. Graceland is full of respectable chaperones - from the wives of the Memphis buddies to Elvis’s dear old daddy Vernon.

But if you think it’s weirder that there was no hanky-panky going on – Elvis and Priscilla share a room for three years before he finally married her – then this film doesn’t offer much in the way of clarity.

Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, it’s the story of a young, naïve girl, lured into the lap of luxury, then left with nothing to do while her king goes off and does whatever kings do.

Actually, we see very little of what Elvis does for a living, though he does occasionally complain about those movies of rapidly decreasing quality.  

He’s absolutely at the beck and call of his Svengali the Colonel, who we also never see. What we do see is Elvis taking all that powerlessness out on Priscilla.

Elvis is played by Jacob Elordi – the former toff heir to Saltburn. At 6 inches taller than the real Elvis, Elordi towers over Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla in an alarming way.  

The real-life Priscilla Presley, who produced Priscilla, says he was the love of her life. But it’s hard not to think of someone obsessively playing with a life-size Barbie doll here.

OK, it's everything you may have expected from a movie about Priscilla – the courtship bordering on grooming, the tacky glamour of Graceland, the King trapped by his celebrity – but somehow less.

There’s no music – no Elvis music, that is, though there are plenty of anachronistic numbers from other people.

So, we end up with very little idea of Elvis’s life, though we follow Priscilla idly rattling around her Memphis mansion until she finally quits after 10 years of it.  

We’re told nothing of why she put up with it or, having put up with it, why she walked out. In Priscilla, like Graceland itself perhaps, there’s nothing there.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)