There’s a lot of silence in writer-director Sofia Coppola’s new film, “Priscilla”; A few seconds of solitude in an empty living room in Graceland, other spaces, representing minutes, hours, and years.
The movie wouldn’t be able to tell the truth without this. We witness a version of the extremely strange and wonderful life of Priscilla Presley in the midst of the whirlwind that is Elvis Presley. Last year’s Baz Luhrmann “Elvis” biopic wasn’t exactly appealing to the eye; the movie was all about whirlwinds and fancy packaging. “Priscilla” opens a different and, in my opinion, much more interesting package.
Since 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” Coppola has produced enough feature films to span a generation. This is his eighth film, not counting his staging of the Italian opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” “Priscilla” is one of his best, as well as one of his most recent evocations that most thoughtfully consider fame, intimacy, and the provocative, precarious intersection of the two.
It begins with a close-up of orange-red toenails on a pale, pink shag carpet. The year is 1959. Priscilla Ann Beaulieu, played with remarkable ease by Cailee Spaeny from the ages of 14 to 27, adapts as best she can, like a fish out of water, vaguely disoriented. Priscilla, a military brat accustomed to relocation, finds herself in West Germany, where her mother and stepfather in the US Air Force have moved.
The largest star in the universe is also located there. Through an intermediary at the local malt shop, Priscilla is invited to a small party at the home of GI Elvis Presley. Frankie Avalon’s yearning “Venus” sets the tone for their first date, tortured and negotiated with the cautious approval of his parents. At the soiree—given all the rightful, shadowy promise of something cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd forbids—Priscilla is scrutinized by the eagle eyes of men and women who are closer to Elvis’ age than the ninth grader among them.
Priscilla had been told beforehand that Elvis liked meeting people from his hometown. All it takes is one kiss from this unique combination of superstar confidence/shy mama boy for Priscilla’s head to swim with all this incredibleness. (This was a highly strategic courtship; she did not become Priscilla Presley until she was 18.) The movie “Priscilla” unfolds in a state of quiet wonder, magical one moment, bittersweet the next.
Soon, this star-kissed teenager’s life becomes filled with more surprising dreams than ever before while awake. First, with Elvis shooting movies in Hollywood and joking around with Nancy Sinatra or Ann-Margret or actresses to be named later, Priscilla, the tell-all, becomes an unmarried but talked-about princess in Elvis’ Tennessee palace, Graceland. The pills Elvis takes early and often turn him into an experiment in chemical imbalance. Wherever he goes, a Greek choir of musicians and yes men goes with him.
Coppola, who has known more first- and second-hand celebrities than the average contemporary filmmaker, seems particularly well attuned to Priscilla’s experiences and the slowly (sometimes suddenly) nascent realizations of what her life has become. “Priscilla” occasionally settles for the standard biographical soundbite, like Elvis shutting down his woman’s desire to work together: “It’s me or your career, baby.” But in this context, without the usual emphasis or underline, this line feels honest and authentic, even amid the dream of desire, love, and eventual separation we’re watching.
The ending is a little less than it should have been, I think, and Coppola has never made movies that follow predetermined, crowd-pleasing narrative paths (“Lost in Translation” is a possible exception). You won’t find anything about Colonel Tom Parker here, or much frills beyond a few truly delicious transitional montages that blend archival footage of Vegas with, say, classic canted shots of the roulette wheel, spinning action, and Priscilla and Elvis’ gazes. like royalty.
What you get, from Coppola’s and Priscilla Presley’s perspective, is a definitive little film about the greatest lives of royal showbiz, set in the brightest, harshest spotlights or in the uncomfortable silence of a room where someone has just left her. slightly less oxygen. Thanks to “Priscilla,” we know a little more about how Priscilla Presley found herself there in the first place, and what it looks like, what it feels like, and how it hurts, with sharp restraint.
“Priscilla” – 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for drug use and some language)
Running time: 1:53
How to watch: Premieres in theaters November 2
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.