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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Priscilla,' locked in a golden Graceland cage

Screen Grabs: ‘Priscilla,’ locked in a golden Graceland cage

Sofia Coppola's opaque tribute. Plus: Colman Domingo plays Civil Rights giant 'Rustin,' border-town education gets 'Radical'

Sofia Coppola has carved out a directorial career from pretty narrow thematic terrain. Most of her films are examinations of everyday life within a bubble of privilege that is both attractive and a kind of prison, whether one wrought by movie stardom (Somewhere), royalty (Marie Antoinette), or cultural tourism (Lost in Translation). Even adaptations The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides deal with the kind of gilded-cage isolation that pines for the outside world.

While it’s hard to beat Versailles in that regard, Priscilla comes close, trapping its bird in the rather more garish palace of Graceland—though a disappointment in this latest S. Coppola joint is that the manse depicted is in fact considerably more tasteful than the real thing. (We never get a glimpse of the “Jungle Room” or a basement pool room whose oppressively busy wallpaper must have been a constant trial to Elvis’ drug-addled mind. Those who’ve actually toured the joint will know what I’m talking about.)

That may be one way in which executive producer Priscilla Presley exerted a discreetly “improving” influence on a dramatized screen autobiography based on her own print one. Indeed, discretion is this movie’s flaw: It didn’t need to be salacious, particularly since most viewers probably already know plenty of rumored dirt re: The King. But it is so tactful, this peek behind the velveteen curtain ends without a sense that much insight has been afforded.

Still, the inherent fascination of the subject keeps us interested for nearly two hours. Priscilla Beaulieu (played by Cailee Spaeny) is an American 14-year-old unhappily stranded in 1959 West Germany as stepdaughter to an oft-transferred U.S. Air Force officer—her biological father, a Navy pilot, died when she was an infant—when a go-between improbably asks if she would like to attend a party with Elvis, also dwelling thereabouts during his much-publicized G.I. stint. Well, of course she would.

Needless to say, this interest by a huge pop star a decade her senior strikes Priscilla’s parents (Dagmara Dominczyk, Ari Cohen) as inappropriate, and suspicious. Never mind that the pompadour’d, gyrating manboy himself (Jacob Elordi) is terribly respectful towards them, courtly and even prudish towards his underage inamorata. (It is implied that they did not actually “do the deed” until they were married in mid-1967, despite having already lived together over four years.) After all, she is a ninth-grader. And he is a man at whom women the world over throw themselves—and frequently hit target, at least according to the gossip magazines.

Nonetheless, Priscilla sustains unusual dedication to what initially seems a teenage crush, and (after a fashion) so does Elvis. Eventually the folks get arm-twisted into accepting her visiting Memphis, then moving in… albeit with the pretense of constant chaperoning, and the proviso that she finish high school. (Where, as The King’s known pet, she suffers the full brunt of fellow adolescents’ envy and scorn.) Meanwhile life at gated Graceland is one long party, however treated as a child she is by his omnipresent entourage—excepting the times he’s gone, on tour or to make yet another stupid Hollywood film on which he’ll get romantically linked with the leading starlet. Those times are, in fact, much of the time.

So this is another variation on the “poor little rich protagonist” gist of Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, juiced by the still-potent tang of mid-20th-century massive celebrity, if a little muted by budgetary restraints. (The only time we see this Elvis perform, it’s a near-abstraction to save the expense of a crowd scene. And despite the real Priscilla’s offscreen influence, apparently none of his music could be licensed for use here.) Priscilla is a child prematurely made over as a woman—those Sixties bouffants sure look weird on a petite teen—yet still treated in most respects as a child by a man who needs to keep her compartmentalized in his life, though he himself remains a sort of perma-adolescent.

These two performers are very good, even if Elordi isn’t exactly a ringer, even in body type. (He’s very long and lean.) But their characters remain enigmas—we never quite understand why he gloms onto this pretty but rather ordinary young girl, unless it’s a blank slate he can project his (sometimes contrary) feminine ideals onto.

At the end we’re meant to understand that she’s grown up enough to need to define herself, which means leaving the marriage. But this opaque portrait mostly details the externals of chains that bind until they’re cast off; aside from hair and dress styles, Priscilla herself doesn’t seem to change. She has put up with a lot, yet she remains seemingly passive, innocuous, a phantom heart to this soft narrative. The inner steel that must exist in Priscilla Presley—her half-century since this tale’s 1972 close has demonstrated great business acumen as well as an ability to weather continued family turbulence—is never really glimpsed here.

Priscilla, which opens in theaters this Fri/3, continues its director’s fascination with the more ordinary aspects of extraordinary lives. Intriguing as that prospect is this time, though, the results are maybe a little too reductive, making an almost bewilderingly complicated, almost unknowable relationship somehow seem smaller than life.

Going in the opposite direction is George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, which also opens this Fri/3 (and is on Netflix as of Nov. 17)—it takes a larger-than-life if neglected figure and renders him in such broad strokes, the effect is almost cartoonish.

The figure is Bayard Rustin, a giant in the Civil Rights Movement whose activism against myriad kinds of bigotry stretched back decades prior—he refused to sit in the back of the bus in 1942, thirteen years before Rosa Parks’ famous act—but who was continually pushed into the background of progress he had to a great extent engineered. The reason for that was two-fold: He’d once been a member of the American Communist Party, a capital sin in the peak Cold War years; and he was a “known,” even “flamboyant” homosexual who refused to deny it, and had a past entrapment arrest for “lewd conduct” his foes could point to.

By all accounts, he was so dedicated to the cause, he didn’t care about missing out on the glory that should have been his due from labors as a master strategist and organizer. Still, it hurt to have allies drop him for fear of scandal-by-association. Rustin focuses on his involvement in the 1963 March on Washington, the biggest nonviolent US protest to that point—a milestone that Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay credits him with almost singlehandedly devising and orchestrating. This Herculean endeavor required him to make up with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), a needed figurehead whose rise he’d had much to do with, but who’d also unceremoniously dropped Bayard from his key position in the movement during a prior contretemps.

Among those who’d gladly helped push him off the cliff on that occasion were NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock in obvious aging makeup) and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (a venomous Jeffrey Wright). Buoyed up by enthusiastic if quarrelsome collegiate youth, the sharp-tongued Bayard must simultaneously attempt detente with these institutional grouches in order to pull off his grand plan—and hopefully push foot-dragging President Kennedy to really do something for African Americans.

So this is a sort of comeback story, as well as an inspirational-uplift one, with opportunity to incorporate plentiful archival footage of the actual events depicted. There’s also private drama in the semi-fictive strands of our middle-aged firebrand’s on/off involvement with a loyal white assistant (Gus Halper) and risky new attraction to a married but willing new participant in the struggle (Johnny Ramey). Rustin’s triumph is bittersweet—he’s excluded from a White House summit, and would stir further controversies (by adopting neocon positions) before passing away in 1987—but it was a triumph nonetheless. 100,000 were hoped for at the March; a quarter million attended. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 by Barack Obama.

That now-ex-POTUS provides a short introduction to the film, further inoculating the subject against holdout haters. God knows it is good to see a major motion picture about Bayard Rustin—though this one does nothing to decrease the value of Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer’s 2003 documentary Brother Outsider. It’s also terrific to see onetime Bay Area stage regular Colman Domingo get a big-screen part of this scale, as directed by theatre great Wolfe. Both had already collaborated to excellent effect on the 2020 August Wilson translation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a movie that both owned and transcended its theatricality.

Rustin, however, is a cinematic conception that feels stagey in the wrong ways. The dialogue is stiltedly explicative, with characters practically introduced by their verbal resumes. The performances are overscaled as if to reach a third balcony, their strain too often underlined in closeups. I’m not sure I’ve ever disliked anything Domingo’s done before; his turns in Ma Rainey and Zola alone should have burnt up the awards circuit. But here he’s dialed up to 11 at all times, every scene (even those without him) so calculated for on-the-nose impact that they land like awards-show excerpts. The script feels like a Wikipedia-style distillation of life-story bullet points—not unlike Black’s prior biopics of Harvey Milk, J. Edgar Hoover, and Pedro Zamora—its lack of any naturalistic or imaginative notes flattening an admittedly daunting history to the most formulaic story beats.

Admiring nearly everyone this project deploys and is about—for starters, the cast also includes Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder, Audra McDonald, and Bill Irwin—I wanted to love Rustin, and am kinda appalled how much I disliked it instead. It’s a movie that will doubtless work for a lot of people, and in political and educational terms, that is an absolute plus. But the tenor of heavy-handed, pandering inspirational uplift that drove me a bit nuts gets a parting hammer-to-nail when Branford Marsalis’ nimble jazz score finally gives way to an insipid closing credits power ballad by Lenny Kravitz.

Another “based on a true story” aim at “crowd-pleaser” is Christopher Zalla’s Spanish-language Radical, which duly won the “Festival Favorite” award at Sundance this year—so, obviously, it hit that bullseye. Eugenio Derbez plays Sergio Juarez, a middle-aged teacher new to a harshly regimented school in a Mexican border town beset by crime, violence and poverty. At first, 6th-grade students accustomed to humorless classroom discipline have no idea how to take his freewheeling approach, which seeks to unlock their potential by freeing their imaginations, and introducing some ideas (such as critical thinking) that are definitely not on the approved curriculum. His superiors are enraged. But Juarez does have a profound effect, including on some hitherto-ignored kids whose life trajectory might otherwise be strictly from the lower rungs to the nadir.

Zalla’s screenplay is derived from a 2013 Wired article (“A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses”) by Joshua Davis. The slickly dramatized results have a definite Dead Poets Society vibe—albeit in a very different economic and cultural context—and might’ve felt too familiarly manipulative in less deft hands.

But Radical is a feel-good movie that earns its uplift, rather than force-feeding the desired emotional responses. Its hero is admirably idealistic, but also somewhat unrealistic about the world these children live in. He doesn’t always make the right decisions. Yet his willingness to learn, and refusal to be bowed by temporary failure or stodgy rules, provides a model of real use to his disadvantaged charges. With educational standards fossilizing on both sides of the border, Radical’s call to shake things up for the sheer joy of it has an infectious appeal. It opens Fri/3 at SF’s Metreon; for other Bay Area venues, go here.

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