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Behind the Surprising Songs That Soundtrack Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’

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When it comes to the music of Sofia Coppola’s films, “There’s always a bit of impressionism,” says Thomas Mars, the lead singer of Phoenix — who also happens to be married to the director. Think of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” scoring Scarlett Johanssen’s taxi ride through late-night Tokyo in Lost in Translation, Kirsten Dunst cavorting through a decadent young queen’s wardrobe as Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” blasts in Marie Antoinette or the haunting chords of Air lending a foreboding tone to 1970s U.S. suburbia in The Virgin Suicides.

And in Coppola’s latest film, Priscilla (out Nov. 3 from A24) — about when a teenage Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) met — one moment in particular seems destined to join the canon of the director’s great needle drops: after Priscilla and Elvis’ first kiss, the resounding, viscerally recognizable trio of guitar chords of Tommy James and The Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover.”

“Sofia is really attuned to the grand majesty of popular music,” says veteran music supervisor Randall Poster, who shares music supervision credit on the film with Phoenix. “In a sense, ‘Crimson & Clover’ is as epic as Mozart or Beethoven — it encapsulates every adolescent emotion possible.”

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In adapting Priscilla from Priscilla’s 1985 memoir, Elvis & Me, Coppola did use some of the historical music cues mentioned in it, such as a cover of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” (which Phoenix plays variations of as the score throughout) and Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s.” But for the rest of the soundtrack, “I didn’t want it to sound corny, like some music of that era can to me,” Coppola says. A fan of producer Phil Spector, his sound “became a way to tie things together. I wanted to embrace the melodrama of strings and big production.”

Sometimes that meant nodding to Spector in unexpected ways: As the film opens, the orchestral psychedelics of Alice Coltrane’s “Going Home” fade into Spector’s trademark kick drums and lush strings — and the joltingly nasal voice of Joey Ramone covering The Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” (a track from the Ramones’ Spector-produced End of the Century).

But many times during the film, silence is used to striking effect. As Mars points out, key synchs like “Crimson & Clover” needed some quiet preceding them. “We felt this will be a big moment, so we can’t have too much music before. To make sure these moments are highlighted, there’s a bit of negative space.” And silence was, in fact, a big part of the discussion among Coppola, her longtime editor Sarah Flack, Mars and Poster about how music would inform the telling of Priscilla’s story. Coppola has always been drawn to illuminating the interior lives of young women, and Priscilla, for much of the film, is alone — left at Graceland, away from her family, while her husband is off in the military or on film sets.

“She’s trying to fit in; she’s not sure where she is,” Mars says. “It takes time for her to get her life back, to make her own choices.” Emphasizing the stillness of her life without Elvis, and the noise and parties when he returns, was important. “I think those silences push you deeper into the movie, ultimately,” Poster says.

Although Elordi magnetically portrays Elvis, the film is centered in Priscilla’s experience, and his music is almost entirely absent from it. Authentic Brands Group, the majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which controls approval of Elvis song usage, did not grant it to Coppola. But that meant “we had to make a weakness a strength,” Mars says. “In the end, it’s better that it’s more focused on Priscilla’s perspective.”

And it seems the film’s subject was pleased. At the movie’s Venice Film Festival showing, Priscilla embraced Coppola and wiped away tears during a standing ovation. “We haven’t talked specifically about the music, but she said, ‘You did your homework,’ ” Coppola says. “She felt it was authentic, which was so important to me.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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