Why Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla divided Elvis’s family

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Sofia Coppola

With the news that Lisa-Marie Presley objected to Sofia Coppola’s new film, Nicholas Barber takes a look at the relationship at the centre of the film.

Months prior to her passing in January, Lisa-Marie Presley expressed her objections to a film in development about her parents, Elvis and Priscilla Presley. According to a Variety article, she sent two emails in September 2022 to the film’s writer-director, Sofia Coppola (known for “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette”), expressing her concerns about the screenplay’s portrayal of Elvis as “a predator and manipulative.” She felt that this perspective was a result of Coppola’s “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous” approach.

It’s not uncommon for family members to be upset about how their loved ones are depicted on screen. What sets Lisa-Marie’s reaction apart is that this particular film, “Priscilla,” is not an unauthorized hatchet job or an exaggerated Hollywood fantasy. It’s a restrained and intimate drama adapted from Priscilla’s own memoir, “Elvis and Me,” and is executive produced by Priscilla herself. She has actively promoted the film alongside Coppola since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.

The film chronicles the Presleys’ romance, beginning with their first meeting in Germany in 1959, when Priscilla Beaulieu (played by Cailee Spaeny) was a 14-year-old schoolgirl and Elvis (played by Jacob Elordi) was a 24-year-old superstar. The film emphasizes that Elvis wasn’t a “predator” in the traditional sense. Despite Priscilla’s advances, he consistently refrains from engaging in sexual activities until they are married when she is 21. However, by this time, he has assumed complete control over her life, dictating her hairstyle and clothing, preventing her from getting a job, and providing her with pep pills. This is not how anyone would like to envision their parents’ relationship.

Coppola’s role was not to exalt Elvis but to depict him as a flawed and complex human being.

In one of her emails, Lisa-Marie, as Elvis’s daughter, wrote, “As his daughter, I don’t read this and see any of my father in this character.” She expressed concerns about her mother’s dedication to “elevating my father’s legacy” and her fear that the film might undermine it. However, it’s important to note that the film’s purpose was not to elevate Elvis but to humanize him as a complex and flawed individual. It’s possible that Lisa-Marie may have misunderstood the intentions behind the film.

Lisa-Marie’s emails also praised Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” a flashy biopic that portrays Elvis as a heroic figure and his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, as a cartoonish supervillain. In contrast, Coppola’s film offers a more nuanced portrayal, avoiding sensationalism and leading to varying critical opinions on whether it implies the “grooming” of Elvis’s teenage girlfriend, Priscilla.

Some critics view it as an objective depiction of true events, while others see it as a depiction of grooming. These assessments suggest that the film did not include the “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous” caricature that Lisa-Marie feared. Different reactions from viewers and critics, much like the responses of Priscilla and Lisa-Marie to the screenplay, suggest that Coppola struck a balanced portrayal.

In an email to Lisa-Marie, Coppola expressed her hope that Lisa-Marie would have a different perspective when she saw the final film and understand the care taken in honoring her mother while presenting her father with sensitivity and complexity. Unfortunately, Lisa-Marie never had the opportunity to view the final film.

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