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Dolly Parton performs at Georgia Tech Coliseum, Atlanta, in 1977. She’s wearing pink and has a huge blonde hairdo Photo: Tom Hill/WireImage via Getty

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Dolly Parton gave us 2023’s best needle-drop

The many layers to one 50-year-old song

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Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Sofia Coppola is an immaculate stylist, tastemaker, and music fan whose movies are known for their impeccably curated soundtracks. She’s responsible for some of the great needle-drops of the 21st century: Think of the numbed, aching romance of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” at the end of Lost in Translation, or the punky frivolity of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” scoring the shopping spree in Marie Antoinette.

No director is better suited for the challenge of putting together a soundtrack for an Elvis movie without having the rights to use any Elvis songs. Sure enough, the soundtrack to her Priscilla Presley biopic, Priscilla, is cunning and gorgeous. It mixes period (or period-ish) hits with anachronistic, moody indie to conjure both the rockin’ decadence associated with Elvis and an appropriate atmosphere — somewhere between wistful and stifling — for a movie about a young woman imprisoned by a dream come true. The woozy stomp of the Ramones’ cover of “Baby, I Love You” that opens the movie sets the tone perfectly.

But Coppola saves the very best for last, even though the song in question sadly isn’t included on the official soundtrack album. At the end of the movie [Ed. note: Historical spoilers ahead!], Priscilla summons the self-possession to leave the controlling, self-absorbed Elvis, and Coppola shows her driving out through the gates of Graceland, their daughter, Lisa Marie, in the back seat. The tune Coppola sets this scene to could not be more perfect: Dolly Parton’s original 1974 recording of her immortal breakup song, “I Will Always Love You.”

It’s an exquisite choice that works on multiple levels, and it has even more resonance when you know some of the song’s backstory. Taken purely at face value, “I Will Always Love You” could scarcely be more appropriate. It’s a beautiful song, with a lovely, keening vocal from Parton. It’s sentimental, sorrowful but affirming, lyrically right on the button, and period-appropriate, give or take a couple of years. It’s the sound of a woman kindly but firmly drawing a line marking the end of a relationship with a mixture of regret, steely resolve, and not entirely convincing self-effacement (“If I should stay / I would only be in your way [...] So goodbye, please don’t cry / We both know that I’m not what you need”).

But this song also has a history with Elvis. Parton often mentions in interviews that Elvis loved “I Will Always Love You,” and once asked if he could record it. (It’s easy to imagine how magnificently theatrical it might have been in Elvis’ hands during his 1970s Vegas pomp period — the Elvis of “Suspicious Minds” and “Always on My Mind.”) But Elvis’ grasping manager Colonel Tom Parker demanded “at least half” of the publishing rights on the song in return. (And he made that demand as they were in the studio, ready to record it!) Parton, always a canny financial manager, refused. She got the last laugh when Whitney Houston recorded her barnstorming power-ballad version in 1992 for the movie The Bodyguard. Houston’s recording became an evergreen global smash, earning Parton a fortune in royalties.

In that context, the very existence of the song, not to mention Coppola’s use of it in the movie, is a feminist middle finger to the apparatus that surrounded Elvis and sought to control everything in his orbit — including Priscilla herself, who the film shows being groomed as a potential girlfriend for the star from the painfully young age of 14.

Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny, in a white wedding dress and swept-back white veil), stands with Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, in a black tuxedo) stand behind their tiered white wedding cake under an arch of green leaves and white flowers, with Elvis looking downward and Priscilla looking directly into the camera, in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Photo: Sabrina Lantos/A24

According to Parton, the song was personal to Elvis and Priscilla, too. She recently told the BBC: “I talked to Priscilla not very long ago. She said, ‘You know, Elvis sang that song to me when we were walking down the courthouse steps when we got divorced.’” It’s a striking image.

Aside from its connection to Elvis, there’s one final layer to “I Will Always Love You” that resonates even more deeply with Priscilla. Parton wrote the song not about the end of a romantic relationship, but about the termination of her professional partnership with Porter Wagoner, a paternalistic older country singer who made Dolly famous by featuring her on his TV show, after which they became popular as a duo. According to legend, Parton announced her decision to go solo to Wagoner by singing the freshly minted song to his face in his office, which must have been devastating.

“I Will Always Love You,” then, is more than just a breakup song. It’s a woman’s announcement that she intends to be by herself and control her own destiny — a statement that, in Parton’s case, now echoes with five decades’ worth of hard-won proof. By playing the song at the end of her movie, Coppola brings all that significance and history, all that heartache and pride to bear on Priscilla Presley’s strange, sad, but ultimately hopeful story.

Priscilla is streaming on Max and is available for premium rental or purchase from Amazon, Vudu, and other digital retailers.

5 more great needle-drops from 2023

Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” in The Creator
Sometimes, a great needle-drop is just about hearing a cool song played really loud on a massive sound system over epic imagery.

Kavita Krishnamurthy and KK’s “Maar Daala” in Polite Society
This Bollywood banger, from the 2002 movie Devdas, inspires an awesome dance sequence in Nida Manzoor’s comic martial-arts romp.

Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band’s “PIMP” in Anatomy of a Fall
What is a steel-drum cover of a crass 50 Cent song doing in a chilly French morality play? If you know, you know. If you haven’t seen it yet, just you wait.

Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” in Barbie
Elder millennial nostalgia is a thing, and Greta Gerwig knows just how to send up her generation’s awkward sincerity in a totally loving way.

Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” in Beau Is Afraid
A classic of the “take a lovely song and ruin it forever” subgenre of needle-drops. The best part is that Carey attended the movie’s premiere, so you know she’s seen the awful scene in question. The horror!