How do you make an Elvis movie without any Elvis songs? When it’s Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, a biopic that shows a new and sometimes dark side of the King, that scenario is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity to create something unforgettable.
“I started making playlists and discovering Elvis’s music. There were a few songs that I kept playing over and over that I really loved,” says Thomas Mars of Phoenix, whose band did the music for Priscilla. Then the production got word that the Elvis Presley estate would be denying them the rights to his music. “The frustration was, I love these songs, but now we can’t use them,” Mars says.
The lack of song rights has been a kiss of death for many a music biopic—a genre which, even when you do have a greenlight, has a high risk of veering into Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story territory. But few, if any, teams could be better equipped to surmount this. Mars and Coppola first met when he worked on The Virgin Suicides in 1999, then went on to collaborate on other projects such as Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, and The Beguiled. (Somewhere along the way, they also got married and had two kids.)
Starring Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla and Jacob Elordi as Elvis, Priscilla—out November 3rd from A24—is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me. It very much is Priscilla’s story, with Elvis viewed entirely through her perspective: his ups, his downs, and his many absences. With that in mind, it’s almost for the best that Elvis’s music is conspicuously missing. The result is a thoroughly cool and idiosyncratic soundtrack, with a mix of classic Americana (“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton) and indie cuts (a cover of Phoenix’s “My Elixir” by Sons of Raphael). It feels simultaneously fresh and unexpected and exactly what you want from a Sofia Coppola movie score.
“I think we knew from the script that the use would be similar to Marie Antoinette a little bit,” Mars says. Priscilla does often feels in conversation with 2006’s Marie Antoinette, both in its exploration of girlhood, its sugary visuals, and, of course, the modern-day song placements.
The film opens with Alice Coltrane’s “Going Home,” which then blends into Joey Ramone’s cover of The Ronettes’s “Baby I Love You.” Ravi Coltrane, Alice’s son, visited the editing suite in order to approve the uses of his mother’s music. That first one was good by him, but a second Coltrane song was meant to be playing when Priscilla and Elvis experimented with drugs for the first time. “His face really changed,” Mars says. “You could tell that he didn’t want to say no to the use of the music, but apparently—which I didn’t know and I really respect—Alice Coltrane didn’t want her music to be assimilated with anything related to drugs.”
The first time Priscilla and Elvis share a kiss, it’s to the chords of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James & the Shondells. “That’s a song that’s so efficient and expresses so much the love for Americana music,” Mars explains. “Sofia was making a commercial at some point, and I suggested that song for that commercial. And then I thought, well, that song is so good it needs a special place in the movie.”
If “Crimson and Clover” didn’t come out until 1968, almost a decade after Elvis and Priscilla first met, then other songs pushed this concept even further. Take the needle drop of Dan Deacon’s frenetic 2007 dance track “Crystal Cat,” which will activate a chip lodged in the brain of many elder millennials the world over. It occurs after Elvis tells Priscilla that he wants her to start dressing and doing her makeup a certain way—the heavy eyeliner and teased bouffant we typically associate with her public image. Right as the makeover gets underway, the song hits. “It’s your brain on acid or something.” Mars says. “It has this very hyper feel to it … we had the sound of the hairspray and the two combined.”
Also special is the song that closes out the film, after the romance has broken down and Priscilla drives away from Graceland to start a new life: “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton. “That was the one that I remember having conversations with Youree Henley, the producer,” Mars recalls. “When they were going through a hard time with the budget … if they had to have the whole budget spent on this, we needed this one, because it was the emotional release in the end that was needed.”
Priscilla also has a theme throughout the film, which is different versions of the song “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, including one by Phoenix. “We asked really skilled musicians to just do all these different versions,” Mars shares. “We didn’t end up using all of it. We knew we had extra, but we wanted to have a lot of them.
And there were, ultimately, two Elvis-adjacent songs that snuck their way in. “Aura Lea,” the song that “Love Me Tender” is based on, conveniently happens to be in the public domain. And when Elvis films his famous TV special, music supervisor Randall Poster found a specific Elvis impersonator to lend some vocals.
As to whether it’s easier for Mars to create music for a Phoenix album or a movie, he immediately answers with the latter. “It’s way easier to have limits,” he says. “Sofia knows exactly what she wants.”
So what do the power couple listen to at home, when they’re off the clock? “There’s a bit of Glenn Gould. Pharaoh Sanders plays a lot,” Mars says. “Then we have kids, so they take over a lot of times.”
“Take Me With You” by Prince in Purple Rain
“I remember being in the theater when it came out. I was seven, and I came out of that movie a different person. That moment is very specific, he looks at his guitar that he wishes he would have, with Apollonia, and then the drums start. That beginning was not just music, it was like a calling for a great old life.”
“Taxi to Heaven” by Pray for Rain in Sid and Nancy
“There’s a song in Priscilla [“Country” by Porches] that I picked because we wanted a similar feeling. When they’re leaving the casino, there’s a moment that’s slow motion and the light bulbs from the photographers are going. Sid and Nancy, they kiss in front of trash falling in the background in New York City. Sofia loves that scene, so she wanted the same feeling.”
“Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters in Risky Business
“That’s my favorite movie growing up. I could have picked any song from Risky Business because it’s all needle drops. That one is dear to me because when I was a teenager and I had a new pair of speakers, that’s the song that I played really loud to test my speakers. It could go on for 30 minutes, you wouldn’t be bored of it.”
“Rain” by Madonna in Uncut Gems
“Uncut Gems, I really liked the score. Then this came as a strange singular moment in the movie when he visits the empty apartment and you can’t tell if it’s playing on the stereo or if it’s source music. Somehow the aesthetics of “Rain,” the music video, didn’t do it for me. I feel like I rediscovered that song with the aesthetics of Uncut Gems. I was like, ‘That should have been the music video.’”
“Perfect Day” by Harry Nilsson in All That Jazz
“I know Sofia also loves this movie. She even copied the moment where every day he wakes up and he has this ritual of taking pills, playing the Vivaldi. It just gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. When I want to have a little inspiration, I’ll watch it on YouTube.”