by Amy Walter and Emily Duff
‘Priscilla’ tears down the facade of what it was like to be married to the “King of Rock and Roll,” presented through feminine imagery typical of Coppola’s style and filmed in 35mm.
After receiving acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, Sofia Coppola’s UK fans eagerly anticipated the release of ‘Priscilla,’ which dropped January 1st.
The trailer showed the same aesthetic of makeup, lace and dresses we’ve seen in past Coppola works like ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and ‘Marie Antoinette.’ Beneath this glamour, hid a far darker story, exposing the romanticised view of fame and the dangers of finding it during adolescence.
Taken from Priscilla Presley’s Memoir, ‘Elvis and Me,’ both recount her experiences of being married to Elvis Presley and the pressures of being thrown into the spotlight at such a young age.
Sofia Coppola, immediately attracted to the “exotic” world Priscilla describes relatability, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “she went through things that every woman goes through.”
Despite not all having experienced marriage to a famous musician, 'Priscilla' feels like a universally understood narrative.
Coppola explained to WWD how she found Priscilla’s “story fascinating and unusual while also surprisingly relatable - in how she went through things that most girls go through on their way to womanhood - just under an extreme situation.”
Coppola draws parallels between 'Priscilla' and her 2006 film 'Marie Antoinette,' depicting women isolated in a state of luxury with a lack of control over their lives.
In response to the release of 'Elvis' by Baz Luhrmann a year prior, which focused on the glamorous world of the singer with little attention to Priscilla, Coppola aimed to give voice to the untold experience of Elvis's wife.
She argued, in an interview with Sky News, that "it's safer to do stories we've already seen" but stressed how “films that have new perspectives and are unique stories need all the support.”
While both films share pivotal scenes, like the couple's wedding, Coppola's lingering camera captures uncomfortable smiles and worried eyes, inviting a fresh narrative.
For us, the key takeaway is a reminder that icons are not your friends. Appreciating an artist's work doesn't equate to knowing them as individuals. In a world dominated by social media, 'Priscilla' serves as a cautionary tale against the trend of idolising celebrities. That doesn’t mean you can’t listen to Elvis after watching ‘Priscilla,’ but rather means we need to remember to keep our distance from these creatives going forward.
Based on her memoir, the film starts when Priscilla is in 9th grade. This is the age she was when they first met, something she tells Elvis which receives a whistle, a smile and him stating “you’re just a baby.” These remarks remain sprinkled throughout the film to really remind the audience how young she is.
Cailee Spaeny has received much praise for this role. Despite never having seen her work before, after watching ‘Priscilla’ I completely understood. The movie shows her journey from adolescence to womanhood and remains convincing throughout until finally reaching her current age of 25.
A challenge to truly embrace the growth of being a young teen to being a fully grown woman, wife, and mother, Spaeny always got the balance of wittiness and naivety throughout. There was no sudden change but rather regular subtlety and an almost uncomfortable sense of calm.
Returning for the costumes of ‘Priscilla’ was that of costume designer, Stacey Battat. Through their collaboration, Battat and Sofia Coppola created a world of pastel gowns and retro glam, all starting from a mood board of existing photos of Priscilla and Elvis and images by William Eggleston. Within the 120 looks Stacey Battat created for ‘Priscilla,’ many were designed by the likes of Chanel and Anna Sui.
Most notably was the Chanel wedding dress, the epitome of quintessential ‘60s and ‘70s fashion we see throughout the movie. The embroidered gown was inspired by both her original dress and the Chanel spring 2020 couture collection by Virginie Viard.
Crafted over 90 hours, the gown merges white crêpe and lace to intricately detail the upper section and sleeves. During the scene, the gown is paired with a silk tulle veil, secured by a tiara needle meticulously embroidered by Atelier Montex. This needlework incorporates beads, glass tubes, glass crystals, and silver rhinestones.
These looks are only accentuated by Priscilla’s iconic eyeliner and even bigger hair, a style seen in contemporary society by the likes of the singers Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey.
Yet, the film highlights how this iconic look was rather superficial. Elvis styled Priscilla in every aspect, not just her clothing, makeup and hair, but also her life.
To Elvis, he wanted Priscilla as an unattainable, virginal wife. This is reflected in his choice of clothing, using colour-blocked pastels, think that baby-blue dress, that fit perfectly into Coppola’s hazy aesthetic.
Stacey Battat described to The Guardian that the fashion in ‘Priscilla’ is “Elvis’ fantasy” as “He had a very clear image of his ideal woman, and he projected that on to Priscilla.”
Whilst the clothing provides an insight into the glamorous aesthetic of the Presley's, the use of setting, decoration and filmography cements the aesthetic of the era’s pastel glamour. As we move through time with Priscilla, the use of see-through curtains also allows the camera to capture light, adding to the nostalgic feel of the movie.
Like Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ the audience is indulged in perfume covered bedside tables, floral wallpaper and lace curtains.
A favourite scene of mine, towards the beginning of the film, is a montage of time passing in which we see her 16th birthday come and go. Her dresser becomes a collection of memories from cards to pearls to perfume.
Still images of Priscilla at a hair salon or trying on dresses are already being plastered on Pinterest, celebrated for its unapologetic femininity. ‘Priscilla’ being an amalgamation of what Sofia Coppola has learnt over the span of her career, having aesthetic roots in many of her earlier work.
Chanel No.5 also plays an important role. First appearing when she moves to Graceland, its role becomes important in defining her womanhood as well as epitomising Elvis’ bad behaviour.
A scene taken directly from her memoir, it fit perfectly into the story and hammered in how harsh her more than a decade of time spent under Elvis’ thumb really was. Although the movie is blatantly sponsored by Chanel, these details felt extremely natural and worked well for the movie - as well as working well for the brand in that I know want my own bottle of Chanel No.5.
Chanel is a brand Coppola has worked with for years, even interning for them in the ‘80s aged 15. Her relationship with the brand paired with its connection to the decades explored in ‘Priscilla’ further enhanced the storytelling, rather than feeling like a forced product placement. Chanel No.5 truly was the ‘IT girl’ scent of the time. All our grandmothers wear it, and now they’re saying it’s time we do the same.
Inevitably, a film about two cultural icons would have people sceptical, particularly Elvis lovers fearful of how the pop-star may be portrayed.
Before Lisa Marie’s death in January 2023, the daughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Variety reported she had been highly critical of the film.
Complaining to Sofia Coppola that the script made her father seem like "a predator and manipulative,” Coppola assured Lisa Marie the movie presented her father with “complexity” and “sensitivity.”
Elvis fans also believed it tarnished his legacy, by framing him as abusive and controlling. Once again, it was argued Coppola was only highlighting a new and important perspective, which to dismiss would be ignorant to Priscilla’s experience of neglect and exploit.
The film's anticipation throughout the year reflects the growing interest in women's stories. As the rest of the world catches up, Sofia Coppola's contribution to this conversation spans over two decades, and 'Priscilla' stands as a celebration of femininity and the evolution of her career. ‘Priscilla’ being a celebration not only of femininity and reclaiming your voice, but the evolution of Sofia Coppola’s career, too.
In a cinematic landscape increasingly embracing women's stories, 'Priscilla' adds another layer to the female gaze. As more memoirs based on the female experience are released, like Britney Spears' 'The Woman in Me,' a woman’s right to her own story has never been so prevalent.
As with all of Sofia Coppola’s work, ‘Priscilla’ contributes to the larger conversation on women's stories in cinema. It’s vital filmmakers provide these contexts and perspectives.