May 24, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “Priscilla,” in theaters now.

As the opening sequence of Sofia Coppola‘s biographical drama “Priscilla” unfolds, viewers meet a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) in 1959 West Germany to the tune of the Ramones’ 1980 hit “Baby, I Love You.”

This time-bending choice may seem unexpected, but to those familiar with the work of Coppola — who famously soundtracked her 2006 historical film “Marie Antoinette” with the Strokes, Aphex Twin and the Cure — it won’t come as a surprise. After all, though the song is a subversion, it’s a cover of the Ronettes’ 1964 classic and carries much of the musical stylings of the period, courtesy of Phil Spector, who produced both versions.

“To immediately be out of period was very exciting,” says music supervisor Randall Poster, who has had a stellar year with credits on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Asteroid City” and “Hit Man.” “So much of the music that we landed on was born out of Sofia’s instincts, and some songs were particularly important to Priscilla herself that we learned about from the memoir or from Sofia’s conversations that she had with Priscilla.”

During the soundtracking of the film — on which Poster collaborated with indie-pop band Phoenix, whose lead singer Thomas Mars is married to Coppola — Spector’s signature “wall of sound” style soon became an unintentional theme, exemplified by tracks from the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

“[It’s] that kind of symphonic pop music that just plays very dramatically,” Poster says. “Some of the musical throughlines were a revelation even to us, once we put these things together. And, ironically, Phil Spector used to keep his women captive as well.” (Spector’s ex-wife and lead singer of the Ronettes, Ronnie Spector, accused the producer of imprisoning and tormenting her for years; Spector was later convicted for the murder of Lana Clarkson in 2009 and died in prison.)

“Priscilla” explores the title character’s relationship with Elvis Presley, played by Jacob Elordi, from their first meeting on a German army base when she was 14 and he was 24, to their 1967 marriage and eventual divorce. Though the film includes plenty of charming scenes with the couple in love, it also unflinchingly shows the dark side of Elvis — one that was controlling, fame-hungry and sometimes abusive. So, it may not come as a shock that Elvis’ music is absent from the movie.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Poster says of trying to get the rights to Elvis’ music. “The family is in support of the movie, but there’s now an anonymous company that owns these rights, and we knew it was going to be a bit tricky.”

“At first, we expected to have some of Elvis’ music, but we didn’t get anything,” Mars adds. “Ultimately, I think it’s better, but it was very stressful for a certain time. Jacob looks incredibly convincing and he’s very handsome, so it’s very easy to realize why [Priscilla] is doing this, but [Elvis was] such a great performer and musician that without his music bringing some of that romanticism to the movie, it was a challenge. … You know, it’s their legacy, it’s their business. So they’re probably very protective.”

While researching for the film, Mars — who admits he wasn’t super familiar with Elvis’ music beforehand — found himself growing enamored with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Pulling up a playlist, he ticks off his favorites that he would have loved to use in the film: “Always on My Mind,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “Memphis Tennessee,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Suspicious Minds.”

“For about six months, when Sofia was writing, we played a lot of Elvis songs in the house,” Mars says. “I knew a few, but I didn’t know a lot of them. It was hard, because I started falling in love with all these songs — and then all of a sudden we can’t use them.”

In order to still feel Elvis’ musical presence in the film, Poster recreated a few songs Elvis recorded that happened to be in the public domain, like “Guitar Man,” which is played while Priscilla and the Memphis Mafia watch his famous ’68 comeback special on TV.

“We had one of the great Elvis impersonators do ‘Guitar Man,’ which they had no dominion over, so that was our way of getting that performance in there,” Poster says. “We tried at points a couple of Elvis things, but we just felt we were better without it. In doing Priscilla’s story, somehow we got more contour by using great pop music that wasn’t Elvis — things like Frankie Avalon and Wayne Newton and the Righteous Brothers, various pretenders to the Elvis throne.”

Elvis’ influence can also be heard in the film’s instrumental themes, including “Aura Lee,” a public domain song that inspired “Love Me Tender,” which Phoenix recorded a version of for the film. Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” also appears throughout the movie as an instrumental, both from Phoenix and the band Sons of Raphael. At first, Poster and Mars thought Phoenix would compose an original score for “Priscilla,” but they opted for these musical vignettes instead, complemented by more modern electronic tracks from Dan Deacon, Spectrum and Porches.

“As we went on, the things we were using which might be indicators or inspirations for a composer, we just liked them so much that we decided that that was the score of the film,” Poster says. “It was just a very special situation that all of us are a bunch of music nerds, and so we had a ball putting it all together and pushing at some of the sound boundaries that might not have been obvious, like using things that were more electro and contemporary.”

But out of the film’s 51 music cues, one is sure to stick with audiences long after the credits roll: The final scene sees Priscilla driving away from Graceland for the last time as Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” blasts through her car speakers. The significance of the song is multi-layered — Parton originally wrote the song for Elvis, but when he requested full ownership over the publishing, Parton recorded it herself instead. Priscilla has also said that Elvis sang it to her as they walked into the courthouse to finalize their divorce.

“We wanted to include it because it’s one of the most feminist statements ever,” Mars says. “She’s like, ‘I’m not doing this, it’s my song. I’m not giving this to you.’ She stayed strong and released it and it became a huge hit. So this is also a nice parallel with Priscilla getting her life back.”

Luckily, since Poster has worked with Parton’s camp before and Priscilla and Parton are friends, it was no problem to get the sync. “I remember discussions were, ‘This is the song that, if you have to spend the whole budget on this, we need it and we’ll figure it out for everything else,’” Mars recalls.

To add to the emotion, Coppola played the song on set while they were filming the scene. “A lot of times when you do movies, the director says, ‘I want to play music on set when we’re shooting,’ and then it ends up that things are always so chaotic that it doesn’t happen very often,” Poster says. “But Sofia just has a grace about her that allows you to be enveloped by this magical world that she creates.”

Mars, who first met Coppola when he recorded a song for the soundtrack of her 1999 film “The Virgin Suicides,” says it was “really fun to see” the film come together during production in Toronto.

“She really loved making this movie even though there were some stressful times. I would come and go and bring our kids sometimes on long weekends. Visiting Toronto and feeling like we lived there for a little bit and going on those sets was really incredible,” Mars says. “There’s a scene where [Elvis] is with the Memphis Mafia and they’re shooting these fireworks at each other … And then there’s the big slow-motion kiss. That’s my favorite memory — them getting the kiss right with all the chaos behind it. I thought it was a perfect metaphor for what making a movie is.”

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