Are You Elvis? Are You God?: Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” Slips from Her Childhood Skin

Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis (Jacob Elordi) at their wedding in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (Courtesy of A24)

“Are you Elvis? Are you God?”

So asks PJ Harvey on her astonishing new album I Inside the Old Year Dying. The song, titled “Lwonesome Tonight” in reference to Presley’s own “Are you Lonesome Tonight?”, sees Harvey sing from the perspective of the album’s protagonist, a “not-girl” named Ira-Abel, as she calls out to the Christ-like figure of a perpetually bleeding ghost soldier Wyman-Elvis. The song’s title and Wyman-Elvis’s hyphenated moniker aren’t the only allusions to the King. “Lwonesome Tonight” also features Elvis’s favorite peanut butter and banana sandwiches and the phrase “Love me tender” spoken like gospel (“‘Love me tender’ were his words”).

Written entirely in the Dorset dialect from her native West Country (hence the “w” in “Lwonesome”), I Inside the Old Year Dying is a triumph of surrealistic songwriting combined with hauntingly fragile experimental music that evolved out of her book-length narrative poem Orlam. Though a listener can simply get lost in the wild natural descriptions and the utter strangeness of the Dorset dialect without paying too much attention to the overarching storyline, the album narrates the end of Ira-Abel’s childhood—or as described in the song, “I Inside the Old I Dying,” Ira-Abel slips “from her childhood skin.” Harvey evokes this transition through the changing seasons, the coming of a new year, and a collection of contradictory yet intertwined images: night/day, noiseless noises, and life/death. Within all these shifting in-between spaces, one constant throughout the album is the haunting presence of Elvis (or really, Wyman-Elvis), as well as the frequent reiteration of “Love me tender,” sometimes sung by the sudden addition of a male voice, actor Ben Whishaw, alongside Harvey’s own. In I Inside the Old Year Dying, as in Orlam, Elvis is, as Harvey tells Rolling Stone, “almost a godlike figure.”

I bring up I Inside the Old Year Dying because I find it has eerie parallels with Sofia Coppola’s excellent new film Priscilla, based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me. Like Harvey’s album, Priscilla exposes the death of a childhood with Elvis hovering around as a godlike figure—except with Priscilla, Elvis’s presence is in the flesh. Buried beneath the film’s aesthetic delights, Priscilla is, at its heart, a story about Priscilla Presley’s transition from childhood to adulthood (and perhaps Elvis’s tragic inability to do so). Of course, this doesn’t come out of nowhere for the filmmaker; girlhood and coming-of-age stories have been Coppola’s thematic obsessions ever since her debut with The Virgin Suicides. 

Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) gets ready for the hospital (Courtesy of A24)

The first viewers see of Priscilla on screen are her bare feet with painted toenails digging childlike into the depths of pink shag carpeting—a material deeply associated with Elvis’s singular and strongly constructed aesthetic. As the credits roll, Coppola interjects snippets of Priscilla: painting on her thick black winged eyeliner, peeling off and setting into place her oversized false eyelashes, and spraying Aqua Net into her towering blue-black bouffant. It was enough to make me want to squeal. This is Priscilla Presley as romanticized myth: the strangely severe alien being flanking Elvis’s side in the American imaginary. This is not the last we see of this Priscilla, blinking back her lashes in the camera glare during their 1967 wedding and, more hilariously, calmly going through a similar preparatory routine while waiting to head to the hospital in labor with Lisa Marie (as Elvis scampers around Graceland looking for a ride).

Yet, that’s not until much later in the film. Immediately after these snippets in the credits, the film snaps back Priscilla at age 14 doing homework in a diner on an American military base in Germany. She has little to no makeup on and her light brown hair is twisted into a short 1950s-style ponytail. Both Coppola and Cailee Spaeny who exquisitely plays Priscilla lean hard into Priscilla’s youth—so much so that I had to Google Spaeny’s real age as she convincingly channels a wide-eyed shy teenager as much as she does a twenty-something. It’s at this diner that Priscilla is approached by Terry West (Luke Humphrey). He asks if she likes and would want to meet Elvis, who at this time is stationed in the army in Germany. Who wouldn’t?!!! Well, Priscilla’s parents (Ari Cohen and Dagmara Dominczyk) are skeptical—and remain so as Elvis woos her—yet still give her permission, sending Priscilla onto a trajectory that eventually lands her in Memphis.

Young Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) in Germany in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (Courtesy of A24)

At his place in Germany, Elvis is ever the showman, entertaining his guests on the piano and slyly catching a near-toppling glass of whiskey, but he also immediately fixates on Priscilla. Best known for his role as Nate Jacobs in Euphoria, Jacob Elordi’s Elvis is notably more soft-spoken and thankfully much less hammy than Austin Butler’s performance in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (though there is one line, “I’m going to be a daddy,” that made my theater erupt into laughter). I’ll admit, I didn’t have much hope for Elordi’s Elvis performance, particularly after he revealed his only connection to Elvis before the film was Lilo and Stitch. But, I was wrong. Elordi’s Elvis perfectly and uncomfortably straddles the line between Elvis and God, even more so as the film progresses. Here, though, in Germany, Elvis feels removed from his fame—grieving his beloved Mama, expressing how homesick he is, and connecting with Priscilla as a lifeline to America. He quite clearly is drawn to her childlike innocence and palpable guilelessness in contrast to the others desperate for a chance to bask in Elvis’s glowing star.

Things change, though, once Priscilla moves into Graceland while still in high school. She’s thrown into a world not of her own making—of Elvis’s making. Arriving at a house absent Elvis as he’s on one of his many, many movie sets of the 1960s, she is desperately alone (sort of), wandering around the living room, slumping on its long white sofa, and occasionally taking his calls. I say sort of as even when Elvis is not around—and even more so when he is—a whole team of people keep Graceland running: housekeepers, groundskeepers, nannies, Elvis’s longtime cook Alberta (Olivia Barrett), Elvis’s grandma and father, and the girls who giggle and open fan mail in the office. Coppola carefully interjects scenes of these working people throughout the film, frequently cleaning up the messes of Elvis and the Memphis Mafia’s marauding exploits. This puts some of this extravagance and even Priscilla and Elvis’s relationship psychodrama into a not-too-flattering class context (even with Elvis’s poor boy roots).

Even with all these people around, Priscilla is essentially by herself. In one scene, she tries to make friends with the girls in the office but gets kicked out by Elvis’s overbearing father (Tim Post). In another, she is admonished for playing with her little white fluffy dog (a present from MIA Elvis—my second favorite present bestowed to Priscilla. My first? A GUN) in the front yard as she is visible to the lookyloos standing outside the Elvis-and-musical-note-emblazoned gates. She’s not even allowed to invite classmates from her Catholic high school to Graceland. And when Elvis returns, it’s only marginally better. Her life, when still a child, is a picture of alienation among decadence.

Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) mopes around Graceland (Courtesy of A24)

Granted, it’s hard to feel bad for someone moping around Graceland. In this way, Priscilla has a lot of similarities with Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, blessedly without the random appearances of Converse sneakers (a dreadfully 2006 detail). This is not to say there aren’t any quintessentially Coppola anachronisms in Priscilla. The film’s soundtrack is an eclectic mix of era-appropriate music dripping with mid-century sentimentality such as Frankie Avalon, Brenda Lee, and The Righteous Brothers, gospel legends like The Soul Stirrers, several originals by Phoenix (Coppola’s husband is the band’s Thomas Mars), and a few out-of-time toss-ins like the Ramones’ cover of The Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You.” Much of these soundtrack decisions came out of limitations—the film didn’t receive permission to use Presley’s own recordings. I actually think this was for the best. With purposeful sonic throwbacks to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, even from the wrong era like the Ramones, the soundtrack somehow added to the realism rather than inadvertently becoming some sort of Elvis karaoke music box movie. Plus, any film that includes Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover” is a-okay with me.

However, the bigger comparison with Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s singular talent for capturing lavish interiors and “let-them-eat-cake” extravagant personal style. Her camera lingers on Graceland’s décor: the crystal chandeliers, the tacky tiger sculptures, the heavy blue curtains, and the other copious ceramic kitsch tchotchkes that Elvis favored. Now, I could watch 14 hours of close-ups of Graceland monkey ceramics but I will admit there are moments when the film begins to drag and I found myself wondering: When the hell are they going to get married already? I don’t think this is unintentional. Viewers are stuck waiting for Elvis just as Priscilla was. She exists entirely in his shadow and to his whims—forever waiting for him to finish a movie, for him to return home, for him to finally fuck her. Yet, these detailed shots are not opulence for opulence’s sake. Coppola’s preoccupation with the aesthetics of Graceland positions Priscilla as just another beautiful object in Elvis’s collection. Even his concern with her virginity—a bit relieving considering the stark ten-year age difference—is also about preserving her as his ideal.

A lot has been made about this age difference. Perhaps rightfully so, though age difference discourse has, as with most discussions on the Internet, flown wildly off-course. Spaeny plays Priscilla with such palpable heartbreaking naivete that it’s hard to not feel a bit taken aback when you see them embracing as a couple (not to mention the sheer height difference with 6’5” Elordi). A lot of social media commentary has also focused on Elvis’s more manipulative and controlling antics—tons of talk about gaslighting out there. They’re not entirely wrong. Elvis does come off as a total dick in parts of the film, tossing chairs in frustration near Priscilla’s head when working himself into a tizzy over his career and suggesting they take a break when she’s 8 months pregnant. He’s also overbearing in his control of her looks, treating her like a “malleable, living doll,” as Zoey Goto describes in Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits. For instance, he sits in a dressing room with some of the Memphis Mafia and gives his loud opinions on different dresses she tries on. This is annoying and something he apparently really did.

Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) fumes about Ann-Margret (Courtesy of A24)

I don’t think these hot takes give the film enough credit for its complexity. Priscilla is not some film out to “cancel” Elvis. Elordi plays Elvis as a man who is completely stunted—so much so that his maturity almost matches Priscilla’s own, even as a child. Sometimes this immaturity is endearing like when he, Priscilla, and the Memphis Mafia (who are always around) ride bumper cars, roller skate, or make goofy home videos near the pool. Even his meals, delivered on a tray to his master bedroom and stacked with a pound of bacon and fried peanut butter sandwiches, aren’t exactly for sophisticated palates. Yet, there is a darker side to his stunted development as seen when he accidentally whacks her too hard with a pillow during a playful pillow fight. Of course, drugs have a lot to do with that incident and with many others. And they show up almost immediately in the film when Elvis gives Priscilla a pill (presumably amphetamine) to stay up during class after one of their late nights. This only snowballs as more and more pill bottles appear on his bedroom side table.

It would be easy to dismiss Elvis’s stuntedness as the behavior of just another asshole, just another famous drug-addled manchild. And yet Priscilla reveals how Presley is also completely controlled, saddled to the whims of his slimy scammer manager Colonel Tom Parker. Unlike Tom Hanks’s truly baffling portrayal of the Colonel in Elvis, Parker only exists as a voice on the other end of the telephone in Priscilla. That distance only serves to expose the Colonel as an Oz figure, the man behind the curtain or a puppeteer pulling the strings from afar. This lack of control over everything in his life, not to mention the sheer level of fame he achieved that was yet unmatched in American culture up to that point, likely had something to do with his own controlling behavior. As Zoey Goto writes in Elvis Style, “Perhaps Elvis’ design pursuits throughout the era—constructing do-it-yourself logos, styling his friends and playing dress-up in Hollywood’s costumes room, were really creative attempts to wrestle back control of his own image. Without the authority to approve his film’s songs, scripts, or co-stars, Elvis had found himself in a powerless position.” It’s also impossible to imagine how someone could become a fully formed adult in that environment, as we’ve seen with so many who achieve astronomical levels of fame.

Perhaps because of this, Priscilla portrays Elvis (often to Priscilla’s dismay) as perpetually reaching for some sort of meaning, reading Bible verses like a guru to a gaggle of women, becoming completely enamored by New Age spirituality, and experimenting with LSD. Elordi’s Elvis is a searcher (which just so happens to be the subtitle to a phenomenal HBO 2018 Elvis docuseries), but Priscilla also shows that sadly he may have never found what he was looking for.

Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) (Courtesy of A24)

The end of the film presents a stark juxtaposition in this maturation. Priscilla, throughout the movie, consistently grows up and becomes her own person—traveling to LA, taking martial arts lessons, and hanging with her own friends. She also gets more and more outspoken, from being the quiet girl in Germany to confronting Elvis about his dalliances, declaring in a glorious camp delivery that Ann-Margret should go back to Sweden where she came from. This hard break from Elvis’s grasp occurs stylistically when Priscilla no longer wears her high-to-the-heavens black hair and heavy makeup, evolving to sporting appropriately 1970s wavy brown hair. In contrast, Elvis becomes more and more subsumed into his role as a God. This is best represented in a sublime montage of Elvis onstage in Vegas. Lit by the glare of the spotlight, mostly visible in golden silhouette, he makes his iconic karate-inspired moves, one after the other wearing a white caped jumpsuit.

Are you Elvis? Are you God?

By this point, Elvis is not only not quite an adult but he seems almost beyond human. And Priscilla, like many adult women, sheds her childhood skin through—what else?—a breakup and a Dolly Parton needle drop.

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