Orion: The Man Who Would Be King Dir. Jeanie Finlay

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: documentary, Elvis impersonation
Others: Elvis (1979), Goth Cruise, Sound It Out, The Great Hip Hop Hoax

“Reality doesn’t mean anything in show business. It’s all perception.”
“Everyone wants a mask to hide behind if you fail. But if you succeed…”
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Too bizarre to be a true story, it’s more like some 20th century Faustian-Orphic tragedy. A man makes a pact with the devil (record executive?) and in exchange for fame, the man must obscure his face, doomed to lose his love if he ever looks upon it with his eyes unobstructed. But we all know how it plays out; Orpheus looks back, Orion removes his mask, and all is lost. Confused? Follow me into the body of the review, where answers await.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is a documentary about the life and musical career of Jimmy Ellis, a man whose voice sounded remarkably similar to that of Elvis Aaron Presley. Born in Mississippi in 1945, Ellis’ mother put him up for adoption at the age of two and Ellis never knew whom his birth father was (and depending on how willing you are to buy into the conjecture, there is a bombshell revelation near the end of the film about his father’s identity). After bouncing around orphanages, Jimmy was adopted by the Ellises of Orville, Alabama at the age of five. At first, Ellis found his vocal similarity to Elvis to be a hindrance; he wasn’t the real thing. After all, why buy a record pressed with the sweat stains of some court jester when you could have one with the imperial majesty of the King?

But then Elvis died. And here’s where the story gets weird. Here’s where Ellis descends into the underworld to make a pact with Shelby Singleton of Sun Records so that he may have one night with his beloved Eurydice: fame. Masked and obscured, Orion released his debut album Reborn, the LP sleeve filled with passages from Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s book about a rock star who fakes his own death to get a second shot at life. A calculated conspiracy was born — that Elvis had faked his death, gotten plastic surgery, and was still releasing music under the guise of Orion. While the documentary paints Orions’ career as a successful one, it’s hard to tell. I had never heard of him, or of this screwy publicity stunt. One thing is for sure: none of Orion’s albums ever went Gold, so even his greatest successes were exceedingly modest. After several years enduring the humility of the act, Ellis had enough, and unmasked himself. He lost his contract, and drifted into music obscurity, adopting several unsuccessful monikers up through the late 90s.

Ellis’ life, and in turn this documentary, are a fascinating examination of authenticity and identity, and how they fit into notions of fame and success in the music industry. There is a clip from a TV interview about two-thirds into the film in which Ellis (as Orion) discusses his gimmick. Ellis describes Shelby Singleton, his manager at Sun International Records, as a flamboyant promoter who will do anything to promote a product. The interviewer interrupts Ellis and asks, “And you’re a product?” It’s a question that goes unanswered, seemingly ignored by Ellis. It’s an uneasy and sobering moment that is representative of the branding that has been evolving in pop music ever since Elvis and the Beatles. The pop stars we “know” like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry aren’t persons but personas, brands. None of this info is new or surprising, but to see it from the perspective of a brand based on a fabrication of another brand, doomed to fail, is still enlightening.

Impersonating Elvis is a unique cultural phenomenon. My uncle used to be an Elvis impersonator. He made his own suits, sewed his own scarves, sang like him, and had wavy, jet black hair. He wasn’t big time, but he performed at bull roasts and senior centers. As a teenager I would help him lug the sound equipment, and hold this garish Elvis flag while he performed “An American Trilogy” and did karate and grinded on eighty-year olds. The Elvis impersonator gets more involved than a traditional cover band, and is more prevalent than cover bands that try to emulate the stage theatrics of a Pink Floyd or KISS. These are lone individuals, reaching into the ether to borrow some of a demigod’s aura. It’s a conscious attempt for mostly average people to ascend. By the end of Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, it’s still unclear if Ellis was god or man, but by the end of his life he certainly seemed fated to a mortal existence. But this doc makes an appealing case to lift him up into the realm of mythology.

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