Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic is a subtle and frank look at her fairytale romance with Elvis and the delicate yet powerful way she takes back her agency.

By Lex Briscuso · Published on September 5th, 2023

As part of our coverage of the 80th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Sofia Coppola’s latest, Priscilla. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.

At Graceland, a group of eager men and women sit around the one and only Elvis Presley. He’s reading a spiritual text in his sitting room, his interest in which sits a search for enlightenment beyond celebrity. His wife, Priscilla Presley, sits at the back of the group, watching her husband revel in his connection with the text. But then, a young blonde woman starts engaging with the singer. He’s clearly taken with her, asking to get a better whiff of her perfume. Priscilla leaves the room in restrained frustration, and as she does, we hear Elvis read some pivotal words: “The flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit.” If that doesn’t ultimately describe the complicated love between Elvis and Priscilla, what else does? 

Sofia Coppola’s eighth film, Priscilla, follows the nearly fanfiction-esque meeting of one of music’s greatest couples, traversing the ups and downs of their seemingly cosmic bond and revealing the truths of their love and marriage that have long been kept close to the chest. It’s a typical story for Coppola when it comes to theme, which makes her the best choice to interpret Priscilla’s delicate yet powerful story. The film is a subtle and frank look into Elvis and Priscilla’s fairytale connection supported by strong leading performances, a wonderful soundtrack, and the beloved director’s ever-reliable eye. 

It should come as no surprise that Coppola nails the essence of Priscilla’s youth, employing her knack for intricacy and highlighting the small things that make girls, well, girls. Priscilla’s hair spray, the pink shag carpet in her bedroom, her makeup, the pastel colors of her school wardrobe. Coppola has always had an eye for details and their importance, almost never opting to leave out pointed shots of the smallest elements of what makes up a character’s world, and she continues this in Priscilla. Marrying her smart directorial eye with her realistic and tight script — adapted from Priscilla’s real-life memoir “Elvis and Me” — works in tandem to wonderfully capture the innocence and questioning hesitancy wrapped up in the young woman’s head. 

Without using any of Elvis’ music, the film still does an excellent job of immersing you in the story thanks to a top-notch soundtrack that is at the same time period-accurate, catchy, and filled with purpose, down to the very last song of the film. I won’t spoil that tune, but you will likely well up just a bit at its poignancy both in the context of the film and the true history of both Priscilla and the singer of the selection. It’s a triple win that a lot of films don’t ever achieve, strangely enough, which makes music supervisor Randall Poster’s work on this project really stand out. Of course, Thomas Mars’ (Coppola’s husband) band Phoenix is responsible for the score, which nicely complements the existing musical selections and cements a cohesive soundscape for the film and its tonal goals. 

In the same vein, stars Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi anchor this film with their smart performances. They both lean into the lush dream of Priscilla’s courtship with a sense of reserved excitement bubbling up inside them, and they each become sharp and guarded as things continue to unravel over the years. Elordi is perfectly cast as Elvis, an enticing mix of seductive, troubled, and cruel. He complicates the audience’s view of the beloved figure, showing him as the two-faced dreamboat he really was behind closed doors: a contrarian that careens toward cruelty and manipulation where it suits him but still has the innate capacity for loving connection. It’s an excellent performance, one that is sure to boost Elordi’s career in a big way, not just because of the exposure but because it really shows what the actor is capable of. The strength of his work in Priscilla is compounded by the fact that he is not only playing a realistic portrayal of the singer, one that is endlessly multifaceted, but also showing the essence of the singer’s complex and sometimes unpleasant emotional core through the eyes of his ex-wife, eyes that remember him as a fragile soul frustrated by the confines of success, perfectionism, and desire. 

Spaeny’s performance is endlessly beautiful, and she finds the fear, eagerness, and anger that encapsulated Priscilla’s years with Elvis. It’s such a joy to watch her find the young woman’s agency, despite her struggle to have it acknowledged and appreciated by those around her. Spaeny’s tender nature gives way to an independence that feels alive and present, yet she doesn’t compromise when it comes to Priscilla’s internal rage, making her just as perfect for her role as Elordi is for his. This is certainly the first of many dense roles for Spaeny, and if she can handle something as nuanced and intricate as this film, she has an extremely bright future ahead of her. 

There isn’t much to complain about when it comes to this film, especially for an audience that already loves Coppola’s work. But one thing that does end up distracting the viewer during certain scenes is the lighting. It was a bit dark at times, a common bug amongst today’s film landscape. There have been articles upon articles written about it, but it’s nevertheless true. Just a bit more light, enough for us to be able to see the outline of faces in the shadow instead of an indecipherable darkness, would help the viewer so much. It’s not a major criticism, but it’s one that needs to be said given how much of an issue lighting (and sound design, at times, especially when it comes to dialogue) has been in the industry in recent years. 

It’s true that some people will think the film comes off a bit muted, but it isn’t at all in a bad way. When you think about it, Priscilla’s life with Elvis was muted. She was muted by him at almost every turn when she tried to open up to him about her desires, her needs, her rich inner life. He wanted to mold her into something that suited him, not compliment who she was already when they met and who she grew up to become over the course of their love. When she finally leaves him in the film’s closing moments, he asks if he’s losing her to another man, despite having affairs with other women (sometimes famous actresses) throughout their marriage. It’s hard not to feel your heart both breaking and soaring as she tells him, “You’re losing me to a life of my own.” It’s a poignant, crushing, and powerful goodbye to a fairytale life of one kind, and the hopeful hello to another. 

Priscilla is an achievement of quiet strength, the kind that the woman herself had to build up and maintain throughout the thirteen years she was with one of the most famous musicians in history. Coppola should be proud of the way she’s crafted this story, a story about a young woman yearning to break free and keep her love alive at the same time that deserved to be told right to honor its truth — and hopefully Priscilla is just as proud of the honest and special film this biopic has become.

Related Topics: Sofia Coppola, Venice Film Festival

Lex Briscuso is an entertainment and culture writer, critic, and radio host living in Brooklyn. In addition to writing news and criticism for /Film, she is the head of social media at Dread Central, Dread Presents, and Epic Pictures Group, and contributes criticism at Paste Magazine. You can find her bylines at The Guardian, Fangoria, Vulture, Roger Ebert, EUPHORIA., Dread Central, and Shudder’s The Bite, and her horror and genre radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays at 5pm ET on independent internet station KPISSFM.