Does Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Treat Elvis Presley Fairly?


This article contains Priscilla spoilers.

Director Sofia Coppola scrubs at tarnished memories for the biopic Priscilla. It’s a bold choice since Elvis Presley disciples prefer admiring unvarnished relics in a still-flourishing golden hue. The film’s primary source and title character, Priscilla Presley, has offered no apologies for her time with the mythological musician, just the facts as she remembers them. These recollections do not diminish her love of the man who came to define her existence, but they cloud his legacy to this day.

“Why are you coming for my dad and my family?” Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie Presley wrote Coppola after reading an early draft of the screenplay, as per Variety. “My father only comes across as a predator and manipulative,” the provocative emails insinuated. “As his daughter, I don’t read this and see any of my father in this character. I don’t read this and see my mother’s perspective of my father.”

Lisa Marie found the script “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous.” Timely adjustments to the narrative were requested four months before Lisa Marie Presley suffered a fatal cardiac arrest in January 2023. It is not known how seriously these suggestions were considered.

Nonetheless, the emails were exchanged on Sept. 2, 2022, weeks before principal photography started on Oct. 24, 2022, and about 10 pages of the script were reportedly trimmed. This reportedly toned down elements from the movie’s nonfiction source material. But inherently Priscilla is incapable of being blatantly unfair to Elvis, because it is not his story. It is a rare cinematic encapsulation which includes the historic figure, but Elvis is not the center of attention. Even Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, which Coppola’s feature is faithfully based on, puts the internationally beloved singer’s name first. Between the covers, however, Elvis is merely a supporting character on page, and marginally supportive at best.

“What Grade Are You In?”

The most successful solo singer of the early rock and roll era, Elvis was always a divisive, and often derided, figure. Called out equally by racists and those who saw his music as cultural appropriation, the hip-swiveling, baritone-growling, song interpreter also divided generations. Thrust onto an easily-scandalized national TV viewership, Elvis was only allowed to be filmed from the waist up, lest his gyrations drive the assembled masses into a sexual frenzy. Even musicians balked at the charismatically rhythmic hillbilly when he first hit the scene. Frank Sinatra initially referred to Presley’s country boy brand of rock and roll as a “rancid aphrodisiac.”

Broadly accurate, and abridgedly fair, Priscilla isn’t for Elvis fans. His songs are not played. There is no representation of Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) in front of an audience. His onstage presence is offscreen. The audience hears only vague references to the periods depicted, and a fleeting mention of Col. Tom Parker. The universe revolves around Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny), and her rollercoaster relationship with the elusive cultural hero whose world engulfs her, to her initial delight.

Priscilla Ann Wagner was born in Brooklyn. Her father, Navy Pilot Lt. James Wagner, died in a plane crash when she was six months old. Her mother, Ann, married U.S. Air Force Officer Capt. Paul Bealieu, relocating frequently as his assignments warranted. Elvis was a national star by the age of 20, living in a bubble he didn’t know existed. There really were no rock stars before him, certainly of his magnitude. His situation was unprecedented. His status was unique. Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1958, a year-and-a-half after his world-rattling debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Priscilla and Elvis were introduced at a party in West Germany in 1959. Priscilla, an Army brat haltingly discovering teen rebellion, was 14. Elvis was 24.

The age gap is uncomfortably problematic, regardless of how it is spun. The romantically informed Priscilla frames the budding love story as an instantly recognizable rock era teenage fairytale, albeit the guitar interlude opens the path to the grim fable of a cautionary tale. The rock fan’s idolization is systematically guided. Awkward and innocent as it may appear, the protracted dance is an early grooming maneuver made to feel like a rite of passage. Fictionalized as it may be, the pattern is a fair representation of the trajectory. The rock star  groomed a young fan and increasingly controlled her behavior and social interactions, as Priscilla recounted in her memoir.

Never one to waste film stock on preamble, Coppola shrouds unspoken histories through subliminal audio and cultural clues. At their initial meeting, Presley is called to the piano to get the party started. He pounds out a raucously inviting rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” popularized by Jerry Lee Lewis, whose career derailed after marrying his underage cousin. The implications are vague but pointed.

The film telegraphs how creepy the handsome, successful singing idol is from the initial small talk. Elvis is looking to matriculate; Priscilla still shows her student ID to get into the library. The mundane settings normalize the atmosphere. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, at least on the surface. It appears to present a true picture of the atmosphere, but we can’t forget that Priscilla was chosen to make an appearance at that party.

Though the film, as well as the real-life couple, made a point of maintaining sexual chastity, Presley’s arrangement with Priscilla raised eyebrows from its first public disclosure. With little information readily available about grooming young, impressionable minds, the era’s media was downright polite with the young rocker. But as plenty of time has passed since the initial sanitized version, Coppola could delve deeper into the web of professional and personal arrangements of the age.

Sex and the Rock Star

According to the film, memoirs, and most interviews, Elvis was always “waiting for the right time,” but this also invokes the idea of subversive training. The couple, who saved themselves, married at the Las Vegas Aladdin Hotel in May 1967. The ceremony ran eight minutes as Parker squeezed publicity from the event. Priscilla learned she was pregnant with Lisa Marie shortly after the wedding.

Presley had affairs, and rumors linked him with endless speculative couplings. The press reported on romances with Nancy Sinatra and his Viva Las Vegas co-star Ann-Margret. It’s hard not to imagine Presley, the rock legend and matinee idol, circumnavigating Hollywood unencumbered by entanglements. The film paints his reaction to Priscilla’s accusations as callous and misleading, but influenced by the camera’s gaze, they are not unfair.  He thought she was raised to ignore such things. Ever the traditional male role model, Elvis may have found the scenes unbecoming of what he expected in a (young) woman.

Grooming is not limited to its defined role in prolonged seduction; it also refers to personal presentation. Elvis was an icon, and Priscilla had to match. Forever in the spotlight, the pair’s job was to epitomize the standard of stardom. Presley chose Priscilla’s wardrobe to complement his own outfits, choosing colors like red, turquoise, emerald green, black and white, and his favorite, blue. He rejected the patterns which carried army-issued triggered PTSD reactions, like browns. In the film, Priscilla puts on regular fashion shows for Elvis, which begin romantically enough until the King of Rock and Roll becomes a dictator of dress design.

Priscilla was assembled for showings, and only had limited engagements. This is corroborated by no less than the Beatles’ Paul McCartney. In Anthology 2, he remembered the only time the band met Elvis in 1965 at his place in Bel Air. Priscella was exhibited as an art installation rather than a wife. “She didn’t need to be put away quite so quickly, we thought,” McCartney said.

More than a perpetual paparazzi target, the wife of the world’s most famous solo singer was further subjected to the social surveillance of the family circle. While you can quibble over whether Elvis gave Priscilla a dog as a welcome gift to Graceland or if it was actually a Christmas present, the story of the young girlfriend getting publicly chided by the so-called Memphis Mafia for “making a spectacle of herself” for playing with the dog is true.

Most documentaries and features on Elvis reference the artist’s growing drug use. He claims he discovered Dexedrine in the Army, and his personal physician refilled his stash throughout Presley’s career. The seemingly reclusive rockstar kept abreast of FDA records in medical dictionaries to avoid the generation’s rash of drug overdoses, according to Priscilla’s memoir. Her story about falling asleep for two days after Elvis gave her pills during a visit to Graceland is not disputed. The sequence in the film where the pair experiment with LSD is also documented in the book. Although it provided positive insights for both, it was a one-off experience. The Presleys were day trippers.

A Fair Depiction of the King

One of the harshest depictions of violence in Priscilla occurs when the singer hurls a dangerous object toward his prone and defenseless wife. There is ample evidence, eyewitness and anecdotal, to support the claim that Elvis threw a chair at Priscilla for dismissing the hit-worthiness of a record. It’s no secret Elvis had a temper and was prone to spontaneous bouts of violence. Tales abound about him shooting out TV sets when Robert Goulet came on. Far more insidious and unfair charges have been laid at Elvis’ feet. Tabloids claimed the couple was celibate after Lisa Marie’s birth because of some sexual hangup.

We know very little about Elvis Presley, the man. Even his most personal quirks merely add to his legend. He’s been known to give away cars to strangers, paint Barbra Streisand’s nails before a show, and play the most gracious of hosts to visiting musicians, from Jimmy Page to James Brown.

From the shy courtship with bumper car rides and proper goodnight kisses to Lisa Marie Presley’s adamant defense of her parents’ romance, Priscilla presents more of a ‘50s teen love story archetype than a horror movie stalker film. The romance is creepy, but the depiction is fair. They did, after all, walk away from their divorce holding hands.

The post Does Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Treat Elvis Presley Fairly? appeared first on Den of Geek.

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