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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Coppola's "Priscilla" finds heartbreak in the American Dream

The first shot we see in Sofia Coppola’s film is that of Priscilla’s perfectly manicured, bare feet sinking into a pink shag carpet. Anyone who has been to Graceland knows that shag carpet is a major part of its interior aesthetic. Much of it is covered in plastic. At one point in the film, Priscilla is told by Elvis’ dad when he drops her off at school, “you can’t bring any friends over. Strangers aren’t allowed in Graceland.” These days, Graceland is visited by hundreds of strangers a day, all of whom take picture after picture of its tacky furniture, gold records, the stable, the gravestone, the motorcycles and the shag carpet where Elvis, Priscilla, Lisa Marie and countless other family members, friends, and hangers-on walked. No one is allowed upstairs. That has always been off limits. Coppola’s movie isn’t the first one to take us there, but it is the first to see it solely through Priscilla’s eyes. She lived in Graceland and, at times, was no less a stranger than the rest of us.

The story begins with her as a teen in ninth grade. She happened to be stationed in Germany with her father, who was in the military at the same time Elvis was overseas. A young infantryman with connections to Elvis notices Priscilla out in public, asks if she’s a fan and proceeds to invite her to a small local party where Elvis will be attending. Priscilla convinces her parents to let her go to the party where she and Elvis meet. She is, of course, starstruck and immediately taken by him, and he with her.

We know where this will go, but there remains a joy within watching Priscilla’s discovery of a platonic relationship brewing that will eventually grow into romance. We also know there is a major age difference at work here, one that we look at differently today than people did back then, though it doesn’t get swept under the rug either. Coppola knows what we’re thinking and she’s thinking it, too. She is smart to know there are other factors to consider here: the times, the naivete of both characters, the extraordinary circumstances surrounding them and the two lonely, homesick individuals themselves who have found each other. Coppola doesn’t judge and doesn’t ask the audience to judge either. This is not about “can you believe this happened?” We know it happened and here’s how.

Elvis convinces Priscilla’s understandably protective and skeptical father his intentions are honorable. Again, we know where this is going, but there is a part of us that cannot help but anticipate the moment when Priscilla’s parents are out of the picture, she can stop going to the Catholic school where homework interrupts her otherwise idyllic life and she and Elvis can finally be together. Why do we anticipate such a weird, seemingly scandalous idea? Because we see and feel Priscilla’s anticipation to see year’s worth of daydreams come to fruition, her frustration with the real world always budding in and we share in the precious little time she and Elvis have together when he isn’t off making easily disposable movies. She, as any American teenage girl would, had a dream of how this life with Elvis would turn out. It’s as American as Graceland itself. Full of promise with a hint of sadness lurking just around the corner.

The first half of the film is the build-up to this life. The second half tells the rest of the story, based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me.” We see the usual Elvis career trajectory moments: his flings with co-stars, the Comeback special, the beginning of the Vegas residencies, as well as the birth of Lisa Marie. What is different here from other Elvis biographies is that we see them as Priscilla saw them, from the sidelines, with little input into the creative side. As Elvis became more and more consumed with the shortsighted demands of Tom Parker (thankfully, absent here aside from passing mentions) and the more he tried to delve into the drug culture and reading philosophy, the less he needed Priscilla around except to have one thing in his life remain steady, something he could control. The disillusionment, though, belongs to both of them. Elvis’ time as a desired American icon fades, as does his judgment. That’s when Prisiclla comes into her own.

She’s played by Cailee Spaeny in a knockout performance that covers the spectrum from a shy, youthful teenager of the early 1960s into an assured and confident woman of the 1970s who has seen a side of American success that is the stuff of fascinating biographies. Her performance and transformation over the course of the film doesn’t feel like a trick. It doesn’t feel like it’s relying heavily on wardrobe, heavy make-up and lifts. Nothing is here for show. Spaeny captures her in her essence, with one foot in each time period of the ten years the film covers. The teenage Priscilla remains in every scene even after the baby has been born. You never catch Spaeny going for range for the sake of it. She’s going for the depth of experience that each scene demands. It’s astonishing to watch.

Priscilla Presley is such an ideal topic for Coppola who often focuses on young people navigating the societal norms, intricacies and downfalls of upper-class life. “Priscilla” never falls into the trappings of being any kind of cautionary tale against the American Dream. That would be too easy. Coppola is more concerned with how Elvis and Priscilla navigate their deteriorating relationship in the face of the Dream. What they stand to lose is what they had at the beginning before the romantic Dream came true. Elvis may have been older than Priscilla, but he was still too young to know how to have the right people to manage his rock and roll career, a kind of career which itself had yet to be written before him. Priscilla wanted to believe it could all work out in the end. Coppola shoots with more attention to their faces than the opulent surroundings, at least until Elvis is obscured by growing hair and sunglasses, becoming more of a subject for wide shots than close-ups as he and Priscilla become different people.

“Priscilla” is a welcome relief from Baz Luhrman’s obnoxious, tacky and headache-inducing “Elvis” from last year (the shag carpet of bio-pics). Coppola’s film lets her characters breathe and become worthy of our sympathies and without resorting to constant Elvis needle-drops (true to form, Coppola goes all over the place for her soundtrack, from The Raveonette’s to The Ramones to Dolly Parton). “Priscilla” makes me want to read Presley’s memoir and learn more, not to see if the movie got everything right, but to better absorb the feeling of isolation and disillusionment that must have been terrifying to feel for these characters. Coppola’s film masterfully captures this feeling and goes deeper than most other films on the topic.

Having been to Graceland twice and feeling like Elvis’ soul gets more and more obscured by the overwhelming shopping mall-like experience that Graceland has become (seriously, the more storefronts and soulless junk they add, the more and more sad it all becomes and for all the wrong reasons), here’s hoping “Priscilla” gives every tourist a little more of a window into the lives that actually existed behind those theater ropes keeping strangers at bay. Look beneath the plastic covering the shag carpet and you’ll see two very lonely people living the American Dream.

Rating: (***1/2)

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