The deafening seven 7-minute standing ovation at Venice Film Festival’s Sala Grande of director Sofia Copola’s latest effort, Priscilla, brought its subject, Priscilla Presley, to tears. With rave reviews of the biopic, which follows the journey of a naive 14-year-old school girl who meets and falls in love with a man ten years her senior, who happens to be the biggest rock ‘n roll star of his time, and marries him, the film illustrates the old adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
The eponymously titled film is told through the lens of its heroine, Priscilla Beaulieu, who became known to the world as Mrs. Presley from 1967 to 1973. Played by Cailee Spaeny (Mare of Eastown), who delivers an excellent performance, she stars opposite Brisbane-born Jacob Elordi (Euphoria), whose game-changing turn as Elvis will no doubt alter the course of his career – and it doesn’t hurt being touted as ‘the new Brad Pitt.’
An honest truth
Adapted from Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, it is revealed that she becomes his obsession from the moment they meet in Germany, where her father, a military officer, was stationed while Elvis was sent to the same location as part of his military service. The film isn’t so much a bookend of Baz Luhrmann’s unabashed celebration of The King in his 2022 biopic Elvis, who was very clearly manipulated by his manager, Col Tom Parker, but conversely, Priscilla shows a darker side of The King where he is the master manipulator, grooming a young girl for the role of his real-life child bride. If the age difference doesn’t sit well with you, prepared to be queasy, though it must be said, as creepy as the setup may seem, Elvis refrains from any sexual relationship with her. In fact, he holds Priscilla’s virginity in high esteem, while at the same time, he’s being photographed canoodling with the likes of Anne Margret and Nancy Sinatra, the Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston of their time.
Directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Beguiled), she treats the audience to a compelling hour and 50 minutes of an intimate journey into the ups and downs of their turbulent relationship. As a young girl, Priscilla maintains a secret, fantasy-like relationship with the same man her friends can only ever dream of meeting in the flesh. She’s hit the jackpot, or so she thinks. From meeting on a German military base to living the dream at the famed Graceland estate in Memphis is quite a trajectory. Astoundingly, her parents believe that their teenage daughter will be safe in the hands of the hip-swiveling rock ‘n roll icon ten years her senior, and as long as there is a chaperone, they have no problem with her finishing high school from Graceland.
It quickly becomes apparent that she’s living in a gilded cage, forsaking fundamental freedoms for living high on the hog. For the most part, she lives a solitary life while he’s on tour. And when he’s home, she’s equally lonely as he spends much of the time with his posse of yes-men/friends. Elvis instructs her on everything from the correct makeup application and accouterments to having to dye her hair black, and adhering to strict rules on her clothing (apparently, he only approves of her wearing solid colours). Under his guidance, she also takes uppers and downers but was never enamored by drugs. Elvis could be cruel and keeps her in line by reminding her of the endless array of women chomping at the bit to take her place if she’d rather be elsewhere.
Presley summed up her experience of watching her life on screen during the official Venice press conference to promote the film. “It’s very difficult to sit and watch a film about you and about your life and about your love,” she said. “Sofia did an amazing job. She did her homework.” Although ultimately she left the marriage, Presley insists, “He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle that was so difficult for me, and I think any woman can relate to that.”