No number of truisms about the strange relationship between truth and fiction can quite sum up the uncanny reality and fateful tragedy of Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015). Jeanie Finlay’s best-known film to date, The Great Hip-Hop Hoax (2013), was an unbelievable tale of a music industry swindle and she’s dipped her toe in similar, but far deeper waters for her follow-up. The tale of a man who found both imprisonment and release in a glittery eye-mask, this is a stirring exploration of that age-old comic book dichotomy before any of the current crop of big-screen superhero outings have managed it.
Jimmy Ellis was a mild-mannered young buck from Orville, Alabama with a helluva voice. Indeed, his voice sounded conspicuously like that of a rock’n’roll idol in blue suede shoes, and he looked like him to boot. From an early age, friends delighted in playing recordings of his singing and falling about laughing when folks thought it was The King himself. But, despite abandoning his country life and pitching up in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, it was only when Elvis died in 1977 – and Jimmy’s voice became one of a kind – that his career blossomed.
Archive audio recordings and contemporary talking heads paint the portrait of a man frustrated by doors consistently being closed on him until opportunistic owner of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton, saw a potential hook. Jimmy made a pact with the devil, and agreed to don a mask and tour the country as ‘Orion’, dutifully refusing to reveal his identity or entirely deny that he was actually Elvis, still alive. Finlay weaves a fascinating story of this oddly alluring fiction. The identity of Orion was purloined from the pages of novelist Gail Brewer-Giorgio, who penned a speculative account of what might happen if Elvis faked his own death in order to flee the celebrity alter-ego choking the life out of him. Finlay bombards the screen largely with photographs, often of the masked Ellis grinning for camera and it becomes swiftly evident that ‘Elvis’ choked the life out of Jimmy, too. “They weren’t clapping for me,” he says at one stage, “they were clapping for a ghost.” It perfectly encapsulates the cult of idolatry surrounding Elvis.
The character of Orion played on those happy with a look-alike and those suspending their disbelief, desperately clinging to the notion that The King hadn’t left the building. Ellis himself would have preferred just to sing. While the technique is fairly conventional, Finlay manages to evoke the mania of celebrity and its stranglehold on Jimmy, layering in recordings in which he laments his hidden success and visuals flashbacks to the open country recalling his early days on a horse farm. There is a moment towards the end of Orion in which a major revelation is hinted at, but she mercurially leaves it ambiguously out there, never lifting the mask enough to confirm or deny anything. Instead her story is not the bombast of the legend, but the mythic fable of a man who could never escape from his shadow.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson