'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King': Film Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
This bizarre tale will leave you all shook up.
12/4/2015

Jeanie Finlay's documentary recounts the fascinating tale of the masked performer who sounded uncannily like Elvis.

It's not surprising that documentaries have flourished in recent years. After all, few fictional films could relate a story as bizarrely compelling as the one in Jeanie Finlay's Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, about a singer whose entire career was based on his uncanny vocal similarity to Elvis Presley. At once comical and poignant, this offbeat, true-life show-biz tale deserves instant cult status.

Born in the small town of Orrville, Ala., Jimmy Ellis was an aspiring singer whose career never took off until after Presley's death in 1977. Shelby Singleton, the then-president of Presley's former label, Sun Records, hatched the idea of Ellis donning a mask and performing as "Orion," a name derived from a recently published novel by Gail Brewer Giorgio about the world's most famous rock star faking his death. The cover of Orion's debut album Reborn featured an image of a masked singer climbing out of an open casket, exploiting the popular theory that Presley wasn't actually dead.

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Notwithstanding the fact that even though he was wearing a mask it was easy to tell that Ellis wasn't actually the King, desperate fans ate it all up. Orion attracted an ardent following and recorded albums of disparate musical styles featuring numerous songs originally sung by Presley. Although eager for the attention and success, not to mention the many women who threw themselves at him, Ellis came to deeply resent having to wear the mask and trade on Elvis' popularity. He stopped wearing it for four years and performed under various names, but as the footage of a concert he performed at a high school attests, it only resulted in his career going downhill.

Using a mixture of archival footage and vintage and contemporary interviews, the film relates the tale with an appropriate mixture of bemusement and pathos, although faster pacing wouldn't have hurt. There's a late, intriguing revelation about the possible identity of Ellis' father, and when we learn about the singer's ultimate fate it's impossible not to be moved. Indeed, for all his flaws, he emerges as a sympathetic figure trapped in a show-business system that ultimately exploited him more than he did it.

Production: Glimmer Films in association with Met Films Production and Truth Department
Director: Jeanie Finlay
Producers: Jeanie Finlay, Dewi Gregory
Executive producers: Al Morrow, Suzanne Alizart, Richard Holmes, Christopher Moll, Hannah Thomas, Kate Townsend, John Tobin, Andy Copping, Alexander Preston
Directors of photography: Stewart Copeland, Mark Bushnell, Steven Sheil
Editor: Lucas Roche

Not rated, 86 minutes.

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