Graceland is smaller than you think it’s going to be, smaller than “17,552 square feet and 23 rooms” implies. Every surface inside hints at the idea of a long and dreamless nap: deep shag carpet, heavy drapery, and mazes of pillowy sofas evoke an endless February afternoon. This past spring I toured the premises, shuffling its mirrored halls in lockstep with tourists of dubious motivation snapping lopsided photos of the Jungle Room. For a moment I flashed to my grandmother’s house where I hated to go as a kid, whose abundance of angel figurines and dismal upholstery made death feel horrifically near. Even removed from the thought of Dead Elvis, the Presley estate gives “funeral parlor,” and in a way, it always was one, designed to the tastes of his mother who died of heart failure in 1958, the year after the family moved in.
For much of Priscilla, the latest Sofia Coppola joint, its namesake — the teenage Priscilla Beaulieu — floats aimlessly through this funeral home like a well-mannered antebellum ghost. She paces the powder-white living room, waiting for Elvis to return from filming in L.A., where reports of a fling with his co-star Ann-Margret are greatly exaggerated (he says). When Elvis is home, she awaits his emergence in late afternoon from their bedroom, which is done up like Dracula’s lair, revealing his mood and thus setting the tone for the day. By night she loiters the Memphis Fairgrounds, cheering as Elvis’ entourage try to kill one another with bumper cars. “After a few hours my own enthusiasm waned,” wrote the real Priscilla Presley in Elvis & Me, her 1985 memoir, which Coppola adapted. She is brainwashed enough by Elvis to dress as his twin, and to start her days with Dexedrine and end them with Placidyl, but not enough to vanquish the cool, canny observations that give Presley’s account its special nuance.
It’s got what Sofia Coppola masterpieces are made of: a young woman waiting around. Forget the cocky self-determinism of that High Fidelity line, the one that says you are what you like. In Coppola’s films, where you are is what you are. Graceland is not so far off from the Michigan home of The Virgin Suicides’ Lisbon sisters, where the only escape was through records or the photos in travel brochures, nor the room in the Park Hyatt Tokyo where, for a good bit of Lost in Translation, Charlotte stares out the window while her husband’s off doing whatever it is that he does. Inside the Presley manor is every shortcut to happiness a young person could ask for — race cars, amphetamines, a short-order cook — all out of reach until Elvis descends the stairs. (There is another movie to be made revolving around the “Memphis Mafia,” the secret-keepers, babysitters, wingmen and hangers-on suspended in perma-adolescence from the fifties til Elvis’ death.)
We (you know who you are) love Coppola for her perfect arrangements of the sacred stuff of girlhood — objects with great aesthetic appeal, suffused with great private meaning. The world of Priscilla abounds with beautiful things, but not the things of girlhood. Instead they represent boyhood taken to its flamboyant extreme — fireworks and bulldozers, go-karts and guns — or the baffling kitsch of the nouveau riche, or the things that a man in his twenties thinks a girl in her teens ought to love. And mostly Priscilla does love them — the shopping sprees, the Vegas weekends, the golf cart races on the lawn — because, I mean, they’re fabulous, and because Elvis is there. She loves the days spent in the dark, bedroom windows blacked out with tinfoil, pillow-fighting and watching TV. “We always seemed to be more in love when we were alone,” she wrote in Elvis & Me. “I loved those times, when he was just Elvis, not trying to live up to an image or a myth. We were two people discovering each other.”
There’s a song about this Coppola should’ve optioned, a ballad called “Video Games,” the first single from then-unknown Lana Del Rey (who, years later, reportedly declined Coppola’s invitation to contribute to the Priscilla soundtrack.) The song tells a story that echoes Priscilla’s back then, a story about a woman who is living with a man. The woman puts on perfume and a nice dress, fetches two beers and opens them, and the man plays World of Warcraft. Sometimes they go to the bar. “Heaven is a place on earth with you,” the woman sighs. “It’s better than I ever even knew.” There are a few ways you could read this, but the singer doesn’t weigh in; she presents the story how it happened, or how she wished it did. Reviews of the song made it seem dead depressing — an unfulfilled woman in a troubling relationship, operating under the influence of serious delusion — though its lyrics suggest nothing short of bliss, and maybe some boredom now and then.