It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Take the theme of one of your best films – An Innocent in a New Court – and remake it. Instead of Marie Antoinette arriving at the French court of Louis XV to marry the portly Dauphin, we have the barely pubescent Priscilla coming to Graceland to become Elvis’ child bride.
Priscilla did not lose her head, although she could have on numerous occasions – both literally and figuratively – thanks to her spouse’s domestic violence and escalating drug-taking. She was and is a strong woman who left Elvis to make her own life, only to see her daughter massively self-destruct and her grandson kill himself.
The whole story is unbearably sad, yet the film’s writer/director Sophia Coppola, who clearly had begun putting this movie together – from Priscilla’s autobiography – before Lisa-Marie’s death, and then had to proceed like it never happened, treats all the events in Priscilla’s life way too lightly. She did love him, you see, to the point that, as she leaves Graceland – of course, from the recent legal battle between Priscilla and her granddaughter Riley Keogh we know that it was not the last time she saw Memphis’ prime tourist attraction – we have Dolly Parton on the soundtrack singing, yes, you guessed it “I Will Always Love You.” Sophia, God bless her, did not realize that this song belongs to another movie entirely.
There are certain parallels between the two movies, the most obvious being the transformation of the evil nobles of the French Court at Versailles’ into Elvis’ vaguely homoerotic bunch of male buddies whom Copolla paints as likable enough and supportive of Priscilla. The only nasty person in the movie is Elvis’ miserly father, who verbally lashes Priscilla for interrupting the secretarial staff. The real demon in Elvis’ life, Coronel Tom Parker, makes his presence felt on only one occasion when he admonishes Elvis over the phone, and we don’t even hear his voice.
Of the Elvis entourage, only one person gets a name, and, just like in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” it’s just a first name; “Jerry.” That would be Jerry Schilling, Elvis’s long-time pal who accompanied him to the White House when he stormed in on an astonished Nixon announcing that he wanted to be a drug czar. In Liza Johnson’s sweet and entertaining movie “Elvis & Nixon” (2016), Jerry was played by Alex Pettyfer to Michael Shannon’s Elvis.
The only part of the movie that works – and gives you a look at what the film could have been – are the opening scenes on the United States Army Base in Germany. Coppola introduces us to the young Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny, who plays Priscilla from her early to mid-twenties) at a diner counter where she sips Coke from a Coke bottle. It’s a gorgeous scene, sexy and achingly cinematic. The camera gently approaches her from behind like a panther stalking its prey. And prey she is because when we get the shot in reverse from her point of view, we see that the camera was the eyes of an army officer who is, quite brazenly, procuring young meat for one of Elvis’ parties.
When Elvis (Jacob Elordi) sees her, he makes straight for her, Jerry Lee Lewis-style. Coppola maintains a creepy yet sympathetic tone as Elvis tells her about his recently departed mother and his homesickness. Spaeny and Elordi are very good in these scenes, reminding us of what could have been. When we move to Graceland, she becomes one gigantic hairpiece while he becomes more mannered and whiney. Coppola lets her actors down as the movie proceeds, and we gradually lose interest.
We also miss, in spades, the wonderful Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Priscilla’s lovely and understanding mother. Coppola cuts her from the movie way too early and abruptly. Did Priscilla never see her family again after she left Germany? That is the impression you are given from this movie.
You could feel the room gradually deflate at the screening I attended, the energy seeping out of the movie with each passing scene. You began to long for Kirstin Dunst, and, circles within circles, you began to feel, however briefly, that maybe Marie Antoinette got the better deal after all.