Movie review: Emotional 'Priscilla' shows dangerous private life of Elvis Presley

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny star in "Priscilla." Photo courtesy of A24
1 of 5 | Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny star in "Priscilla." Photo courtesy of A24

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Priscilla, in theaters Friday, makes a fascinating counterpoint to last year's Elvis. While not a hit piece, Priscilla explores the power dynamics at play in Priscilla Beaulieu and Elvis Presley's relationship.

In 1959, Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) was a 14-year-old living on the U.S. Air Force base in West Germany, where her father (Ari Cohen) was a captain. Terry West (Luke Humphrey) invites Priscila to come to Elvis' (Jacob Elordi) party while he was in the Army.


Terry sells Capt. Beaulieu and his wife, Ann (Dagmara Dominczyk) on allowing Priscilla to attend multiple parties. Then Elvis makes an appearance in uniform to win the Beaulieus' trust, showing how, little by little, he gained permission to fraternize with a minor.

Elvis does insist on waiting until she's older to sleep together, but he requests Priscilla move to Memphis with him. Then he takes a 16-year-old Priscilla to Las Vegas.


The Beaulieus are afraid to say no because Priscilla would never forgive them. Plus, she could still run off with Elvis, anyway.

While their reasoning is logical and family is no match for the allure of Elvis, one would hope a parent could come up with some kind of moderate, yet effective, way to protect their daughter.

In Memphis, Priscilla has to wait for Elvis while he films movies. He won't let her get an after-school job because he wants her on call for him.

The casting alone exaggerates the physical disparity between Elvis and Priscilla. Spaeny is 3 inches shorter than the real Priscilla and Elordi 5 inches taller than Elvis.

So he towers over her, and when he holds her arm firmly, it does not seem like Priscilla has the choice to refuse any request. At first, he's so charming that even his criticism can seem positive.

Priscilla tries on dresses for him, but he nixes any dress he doesn't like. Then he makes her over further with hair dye and eye makeup.

The film highlights the pills Elvis took and gave to Priscilla. We now know these are the same pills that ultimately led to Elvis's death, and they certainly weren't meant for a teenage girl.


Taking pills to sleep and more to wake up appears to heighten the emotions of the already fraught relationship.

Eventually, Priscilla starts to assert herself in the same passive-aggressive ways with which Elvis addressed her. She learns how to play Elvis' moods, so when she agrees to his demand, it becomes real and he changes his mind, anyway.

He does scream and throw things, but his immediate apology is almost scarier. There's no Oscar clip of the one moment in which Elvis went too far.

This is the portrayal of the attrition by which psychological abuse wears partners down. This subtle and sophisticated perspective feels like it comes out of personal experience for writer-director Sofia Coppola, though it could just be derived entirely from her empathy.

Every time Elvis becomes obsessed with a new interest, Priscilla has to be interested, too. It seems exhausting just to keep up for 113 minutes, let alone years.

Where other biographies focus on the career or romance, Priscilla focuses on this psychological dynamic. Fame and money enable it, but it's familiar to many non celebrities. too.

The specter of Austin Butler's portrayal of Elvis still looms large more than a year later. Elordi is playing the private Elvis, so it is different, but you can still tell who he is by the hair and his drawl.


He does practice his leg shake at home, but Coppola waits to even show Elvis performing until late in the movie after his 1968 comeback.

Covering the late '50s to early '70s, time passes in subtle ways. Even a montage shows Priscilla waiting in Germany from 1961 through her 16th birthday and into 1962 without aggressively hammering dates and demarcations of time.

The Elvis estate did not agree to license music for Priscilla but the use of other contemporary music ends up serving a substantial purpose. The use of other popular rock music is a good way to drive home that Elvis was great, but there was other great stuff, too.

Elvis lost a sense of the larger world and Priscilla was at risk of being consumed by this relationship. It's entirely possible to be narcissistic with far less objective success, but the celebrity industry consumed Elvis privately, as well as publicly.

The only Elvis-related music that appears is an instrumental of "Love Me Tender" and some clips of the '68 special and a bit of riffing at a concert.

It's no surprise a film by Sofia Coppola has fine attention to detail in the Graceland interiors and the period-authentic costumes.


The film isn't a bummer, either. It has a sense of humor about the extent of Elvis's popularity.

Priscilla Presley has told her side of the story over the years, and she was an executive producer on Priscilla, so she clearly approved.

Priscilla could make an interesting double feature with Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, not just because Priscilla is literally the perspective deliberately circumvented in Elvis during overlapping events.

Elvis was intentionally about the hype of Elvis. In contrast, Priscilla reminds viewers that there were actual people who had to go home together and figure out how to get along.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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