Out of the Shadows: Priscilla Presley
Priscilla removes the rose-tinted glasses through which society views Elvis’s glamour-filled life and examines it through the eyes of his often-forgotten wife.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Filmmaker Sofia Coppola has once again left an indelible mark on the hearts and souls of audiences everywhere with Priscilla (2023), a simple and honest examination of the true events of Priscilla and Elvis Presley’s “fairytale” marriage. Priscilla removes the rose-tinted glasses through which society views Elvis’s glamour-filled life and examines it through the eyes of his often-forgotten wife.
Priscilla follows the life of Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeney), focusing on her controversial marriage to Elvis after the two met when she was 14 and he was 24. Despite being the second Elvis-focused film in recent years (2022’s Elvis being the first), Priscilla provides a fresh take on Elvis and his career, immersing viewers in the more intimate aspects of his life with Priscilla. Elvis (Jacob Elordi) is presented as a man prone to spontaneous fits of anger throughout his intoxicating life of fame and fortune. With a timeline that spans from their first meeting to their divorce, the audience sees the impact of Elvis’s unpredictable nature on Priscilla and her journey on find her identity amidst a dream-illusioned world of drugs, stars, and glamour.
The film’s dramatic cinematography draws out the deep intensity of the story, highlighting the power imbalance in a marriage dominated by Elvis. The aesthetics highlight Coppola’s acute attention to detail. Important settings, such as Elvis’s Graceland Mansion and the glamorous scenes of Las Vegas, are brought to life through lush color palettes and dramatic lighting. There’s also a stark difference in color palettes, with Priscilla’s life before Elvis portrayed as bleak and dull, whereas Elvis’s world is full of light and bursts of color. The film is able to transport audiences completely with the grandiose sets (including a blueprint remake of the Graceland Mansion), incorporation of ‘60s and ‘70s hits into the soundtrack, and recreations of Priscilla’s iconic wardrobe. The film is built on a foundation of heavy research conducted by Coppola, who aimed to honor this personal story in only 30 days of filming and a tight budget of 20 million dollars. Influenced by Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, Coppola manages to tell a story in which Priscilla’s character is finally able to shine.
The stories of Priscilla and Elvis are interwoven more and more as the film progresses, with the characters becoming extremely reliant on one another in ways often reinforced by the restrictive gender roles of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Spaeney and Elordi completely capture this dynamic and embody their characters; Elordi’s masterful use of Presley’s unique speech style and Southern drawl is complemented by Spaeney’s quiet contemplation. Coppola manages to capture the dynamic to the point that it is almost overwhelming, as Priscilla (and the audience) learn that their relationship is on Elvis’s terms; it is Elvis's world, and what he says goes. Priscilla’s character is dainty and becoming, and she appears to be the stereotypical “perfect woman.” Priscilla is dressed by Elvis; her innocent brown ponytail becomes dyed black hair and winged eyeliner. Despite her husband’s abuse, she’s always quiet, obedient, and ready to forgive him because he’s all she’s ever known. As the film progresses, however, Priscilla slowly starts to acknowledge Elvis’s constant love-bombing and manipulation; she disrupts the power imbalance in her marriage by divorcing him, finally confronting her husband's ravenous desire for fame and drugs.
Coppola’s filmmaking skills are perfectly suited for making the film a masterpiece. Known for her films’ hyper-focus on a character’s interpersonal conflicts and journey to self-discovery—exemplified most notably in Lost in Translation (2003)—Coppola completely captures Priscilla’s character through the problematic dynamics of the Presley marriage. Coppola crafts an unhurried, character-focused narrative rather than relying on over-the-top production, allowing viewers to connect with Priscilla on an extremely personal level. Coppola captures the young girl’s world turned upside down by a man who’s both hot and cold.
The use of music in the film is also noteworthy, especially since Priscilla married to the King of Rock himself. Shockingly, there were no Elvis songs present in the soundtrack, possibly to maintain the focus on Priscilla’s story. Instead, songs like “Crimson and Clover” (1968) by Tommy James & The Shondells and “Venus” (1960) by Frankie Avalon echo Priscilla’s youth. “Please send a little girl for me to thrill / A girl who wants my kisses and my arms,” sings Avalon, reminding the audience of the alarming age gap between the pair. The music effortlessly captures the discreet darkness of their relationship.
Priscilla is powerful in every way imaginable. Praised by the real-life Priscilla Presley, it tells the story of a formidable young woman who grows up in the world of rock n’ roll and the public eye surrounded by drugs, lies, and a false sense of security. Priscilla slowly finds her identity as a fearless woman who remains illustrious through her countless accomplishments.