Propped atop a tall stool by the counter of a classic diner is a very coy Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny), a 14-year-old plucked out of Texas and thrown into West Germany when her military father is summoned to Europe during the war. Not even the casual nonchalance of working by a diner bar could mature the childish demeanour of the girl, who is shocked when her quiet presence attracts the attention of a dashing older soldier. He taps her shoulder to ask if she’d like to go to a party at the house of his fellow Air Force brat and dear friend, Elvis (Jacob Elordi). Yes, that Elvis.
This being 1960, the name is enough to send a rumble of excitement through the body of a regular adult, let alone a highly impressionable teen starved of excitement. Some insistent pleading ensues and off to the soirée Priscilla goes in her nicest dress, finding in the busy house not the star she believed to know, but a homesick man in desperate need of a friendly ear. That such ears happen to be on each side of the head of a young teen matters very little to the 24-year-old Elvis, who humorously remarks, “You’re just a baby!” but shows no hesitation in inviting the girl upstairs with promises to remain a respectful gentleman.
The mythology of Elvis has been unpacked and repackaged in many forms over the past six decades, with Baz Luhrman’s glitzy biopic of the King nabbing eight Oscar nominations less than a year ago. With her adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s 1985 book Elvis and Me, Sofia Coppola finally flips the coin on a relationship often told unilaterally. Although it is no news how Elvis first met Priscilla as a young teen, luring the girl into a relationship that would come to rob her of a chance at ordinary adolescence, the complex dynamics of their whirlwind romance have rarely been discussed beyond inflammatory one-liners that make the rounds every then and again.
Going beyond the simplistic is exactly what Coppola does with her A24 production, which explicitly highlights this power imbalance without needing to define Priscilla solely as a helpless victim. The American director is no stranger to tackling the intimate urges of teenage girls, and Priscilla is not freed from such longing either. Adrenaline rushes through the girl’s veins, reddening cheeks and unsteadying steps as Elvis gently places his hand over her knee. Hormones power her body like electricity. The examination of the sexual tug-of-war that comes to stand between the two builds a greatly effective foundation for the film’s portrayal of the relationship, with Elvis prone to emotional hyperbole while cruelly withholding his physical affection.
Without desire, a romance that once braved the dangerous waters of controversy settles upon the calmer tides of companionship, a constant shift between highs and lows beautifully walked by Spaeny. We spend the first half of Priscilla anxiously waiting for the girl to start resembling the woman, tracing the first smudge of eyeliner to touch her trembling lid and measuring her ever-towering hair inch by inch. The weight of such heavy expectations offers Spaeny no harm, her muted yet assured performance proving the perfect counter to Elordi’s roaring Elvis.
Why must we pit two kings against each other, one might ask, but it’s hard not to compare the Euphoria alum’s turn to Austin Butler’s recent embodiment of the iconic singer. While Oscar-nominated Butler convincingly boosted his career through a publicly intense process to become the King, Elordi’s journey has been much less publicised. This, it turns out, works greatly in favour of the Australian actor, who comes in as the underdog and sweeps Priscilla and the viewers off their feet in one big swing. Despite the film being about the woman, it could not have been told without a precise dissection of the man she orbited for such a vital part of her early life. Elordi understands this need for his presence without aggressively pursuing the spotlight and, under Coppola’s masterful guide, delivers the greatest work of his career so far.
Much like with her 2006 biopic, Marie Antoinette, Coppola showcases an interest in the crushing consequences of having an unprepared girl enter the all-consuming world of royalty. While Priscilla may lack some of the irreverence of that earlier work, it displays a welcome balancing of the filmmaker’s visual flair coupled with a matured inclination towards melodrama. This marriage is best exemplified in the poignant song Coppola chooses to usher Priscilla out of the gates of Graceland, a needle drop that works best when experienced without warning. A classic with a bittersweet meaning to the Presleys, the ballad acts as a perfect encapsulation of the infamy of a legend who sang so soulfully about love while unable to love anything as much as he loved himself.