With her recent film adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me, Sofia Coppola has managed to answer a question Kubrick posed over a half-century ago; how could they ever make a movie of Lolita? But she has left us with a new one, why didn’t she?
The biggest challenge facing Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla was its ability to tackle the themes of the memoir, the story of Priscilla Presley’s relationship with Elvis walks along the balance of being a story of beautiful infatuation and a story of predation and abuse, and in this, its greatest challenge the film succeeds. These themes are handled masterfully in all aspects of the film. From the casting of our two main characters to the cinematography, dialogue, and costumes, every aspect of the film comes together to create a simultaneous sense of awe and anxiety. We are placed firmly in Priscilla’s shoes and find ourselves compelled by her feelings towards Elvis and invested in the love story she believes in, while being constantly reminded of the fundamentally unequal and predatory nature of the relationship in question.
In approaching these themes so effectively and compellingly this film achieves something few before it ever has, with this film Sofia Coppola comes within an inch of making cinematic history, but unfortunately, while this film succeeds in being beautiful, emotionally compelling and complex, and thematically cogent it simply fails to be interesting. The plot of this film is underwhelming. It lacks any real sort of grit or bite.
The standout performance in the film is undeniably Cailee Spaeny’s performance as Priscilla Presley, she is absolutely phenomenal. This actress in her mid-twenties managed to convincingly play a precocious 15-year-old girl infatuated with an American icon and a 27-year-old mother, years into an abusive relationship. With gradual and subtle changes in costuming and acting she transitions remarkably from a child who thinks she is grown to an adult who feels like a scared kid, and when she finally becomes a grounded independent woman, it is entirely believable.
It is a shame the story leaves something to be desired as it would be unfortunate for Spaeny not to get her flowers for this fabulous performance. Jacob Elordi’s star will not be dulled or shined by this film, his performance as Elvis was entirely adequate. It was a refreshingly understated depiction of a pop culture icon but is one of his less impressive recent performances.
This film was beautifully soundtracked; the Presley families reported denial of usage rights to it was a blessing in disguise. The lack of Elvis’ music in the film was perfect, its inclusion though an intuitive choice would have proved distracting and its distinct and noticeable lack brought into focus a key aspect of this film; that while it is a film about Priscilla and Elvis Presley, it is first and foremost a film about a girl and a man. The soundtrack’s anachronism with the time period of the events gives it a timeless feel drawing it away from being a period piece which serves the narrative and themes beautifully. Stand-out musical moments are Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ over the ending of the film and beginning of the credits and the Ramones’ cover of ‘Baby, I love you’.
It’s hard not to conclude that Priscilla Presley’s personal involvement in the film may have contributed to the plot feeling so neutered, which prompts one to think why adapt Elvis and Me at all? Why not tell a fictional story with a little more meat to it? This film is definitely worth a watch for most cinephiles and Sophia Coppola fans, and most audiences will enjoy it, but it is unlikely to make a real dent in the cultural zeitgeist or live for very long in the minds of its audiences, which is a real shame because it so very could almost have been something absolutely incredible.