Elvis Warner Bros

Mandy Walker on lensing the talent and tragedy of Elvis

Ahead of a hotly tipped awards season for Baz Luhrmann’s biopic of the King, Mandy Walker discusses her role in bringing the film’s aesthetic to life – and why there aren’t more women in cinematography

There’s a particularly emotional moment towards the end of Elvis where we watch the film’s star, Austin Butler, portray what would later turn out to be the singer’s last ever performance. He died two months later in August 1977, aged just 42, following extensive health issues and struggles with addiction. During the performance, the almost unrecognisable singer slurs his words and can hardly walk, but as he belts out a cover of Unchained Melody, you can physically see him come alive with the joy of performing for an audience. It’s so captivating that you almost don’t even notice the seamless transition from Butler’s portrayal to real-life footage of the King’s swansong.

Well-known for his maximalist, bordering on operatic approach to directing, it makes perfect sense why Baz Luhrmann was so drawn to the cautionary tale of Elvis’ rise to fame. The biopic tells this story through the lens of the complicated relationship between him and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Originally a carnival barker, when the Colonel met Elvis, then aged just 20, he was immediately struck by the dramatic effect he had on young audiences. “It was the greatest carnival act I had ever seen,” as he puts it.

Elvis Warner Bros
Top: Austin Butler as Elvis; Above: Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis, photo by Hugh Stewart. All images © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

Since its release, Elvis has managed to navigate the often perilous tightrope walk of both commercial and critical success. The film grossed more than $284 million worldwide at the box office. Meanwhile, reviewers praised its kaleidoscopic chronicling of the King which, as one Guardian review put it, somehow manages to combine “the kinetic musical madness of Moulin Rouge! with the turbo-charged irreverence of The Great Gatsby, the Shakespearian tragedy of Romeo+Juliet … and the ‘what-all-of-it!?’ ambition of Australia.”