Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
August 16, 1977. All of America was stunned by the news of Elvis Presley's untimely passing. Some went so far as to believe that it couldn't be true. Somehow he had faked his death. For the executives at Sun Records that fantasy became an opportunity in the form of Orion, a mysterious masked performer with the voice of The King. First appearing in 1979, Orion recorded 11 albums and performed live to packed houses and rapturous fans around the nation. But who was the man behind the mask? In this stranger-than-fiction true story, Jeanie Finlay exposes the incredible life of an unknown singer plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight with the complicity of a manipulative music industry and a public fan base unwilling to let The King go. Resonant in its themes of identity, fate, and the double-edged nature of fame, Orion is a stylish mystery story that finally gives a name and a face to a gifted artist who had been unjustly deprived of both.
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★★★★ review by Arielrocks5 on Letterboxd
While watching an episode of "Lazy Town" about Robbie Rotten impersonating Elvis with a friend of mine, he brought up a story of a guy who sounded exactly like the legend and started a whole mystery of if he was actually The King under the mask.
After we finished the episode, we decided to watch the documentary about him. Full disclosure; I don't watch many documentaries so I don't have much to compare this to, but this was pretty fascinating, be it incredibly depressing by around the half way point.
Manages to bring up some interesting themes about intently in the larger scale media business and how much it can effect your career in the long run, while showing how the myth began and how the rising star's sanity began to fade as the years went on.
Not a whole lot to talk about without giving most of it away in hindsight, but still worth checking out. It's on Netflix so give it a watch if you got an hour and a half to kill.
★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
Jeanie Finlay will always have a place in my affections for making Sound It Out, the greatest film ever made about my home county of Teesside. (Granted, the competition isn't heavy, but even if it was Sound It Out is really that good) That was an observational cinema verite documentary. Since then she's been working in the talking-heads-and-clips mode familiar from so many retrospective music docs, but she's been using that format to tell offbeat stories that get into the interesting issues surrounding popular music - ideas of authenticity, of representation, of adopting different personas, and about how all of these subtle, complex things fare when dropped into the ruthlessly capitalistic meat-grinder of the music industry.
Her new film is about the brief flowering of Orion, a masked singer whose gimmick was a simple one; he really, really sounded like Elvis. And he emerged in 1978, a point at which America desperately needed someone who sounded like Elvis. He wore a half-mask, and gave vague, non-committal answers when asked about his past. He looked, frankly, nothing like Presley, but people were eager to believe, and his backing band remember gig-goers showing almost religious devotion to the risen King.
I hate to spoil this documentary for you, but he wasn't really Elvis. Or was he? No, he wasn't. He was Jimmy Ellis, and the most cherishable irony of Finlay's film comes when it shows how his career-igniting gimmick had previously been a terrible burden. Back when Elvis Presley was alive, Ellis was dismissed as hopelessly derivative; why listen to an imitator when the real thing was still around? Wonderfully, his last single before his new life as Orion was titled 'I'm Not Trying to be Like Elvis', which invites the rejoinder; you might not be trying, but you're certainly succeeding.
These days the Orion scam would be blown open immediately; five seconds on iTunes would bring up his previous singles under his own name. But his manager, Shelby Singleton, did everything he could to encourage the speculation. Amazingly, Singleton worked at Sun Studios, where Presley's first singles were recorded, yet he seems to have had no squeamishness about exploiting the recent death of his studio's most famous son. And despite naming Elvis as a personal hero, Ellis doesn't seem to have had any dark nights of the soul about that either. He did become very uncomfortable with the Orion persona, but more for its stifling effects on his creativity and personal life, as well as Singleton's refusal to actually pay him royalties.
The film has a lot of access to people close to Ellis, who talk candidly about his inability to cope with this odd, anonymous success. But Ellis, who died in 1998, is represented only by an impressive array of archive footage and some fuzzy old tape recordings. It leaves a certain emotional void at the centre of the documentary, particularly when it gets to his sad final years. Maybe that's appropriate for the tale of a man who was doomed to never be himself.
★★★½ review by Grimbo on Letterboxd
So, it's a documentary about a talented singer who was roped into being a kind of Elvis impersonator after the King died, but really wanted to be his own man, but the adulation from the Elvis fans who wanted to believe this guy might be their fave back from the dead, kept him doing it!
It's touching and tragic and well worth a watch. I'm not an Elvis fan there is enough about a forgotten performer to make a mark.
★★★★½ review by Jack Keane on Letterboxd
"I mean, who are you? Make up your mind!"
The unexpected, peculiar, surreal, sad, and completely true story of a man named Jimmy Ellis - a small-town Texan whose singing voice was utterly indistinguishable from that of Elvis Presley, but whose path to fame never reached the stratospheric heights of The King.
That is, until the day that Elvis died, and a strange confluence of events, ideas, and managerial money-grubbing soon transformed Jimmy into the mysterious Orion - a masked performer who sounded exactly like the king of rock'n'roll; who never revealed his name, nor ever took off the mask; his persona's backstory rooted in the fiction of a novel about a famous singer who faked his own death; a man who, according to the wishful thinkings of countless fans and audiences, could have been Elvis himself, returned from the grave.
'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King' tells the tale of the man behind the mask, the circumstances that lead to him donning it, the struggles he had with his identity, and living under the shadow of the man whose voice he shared.
It's a fascinating, engrossing documentary, which is too good for me to spoil further details about here, but which is nonetheless filled with jaw-dropping bombshells, amazing archive footage, and an excellent soundtrack (almost all of it exclusively sung by Jimmy/Orion himself).
Were it not for this film existing, I could easily imagine someone making a based-on-a-true-story movie that depicts the parallel lives (in many, many surprising ways) of Jimmy and Elvis, showing the contrasting extravagant success of Presley with the moderate and bittersweet near-success of Ellis (who once released a song that was literally entitled "I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis"), before culminating in showing both of their ultimate downfalls.
However, such a film - if ever it was made - might never be as good as this one is.
Check it out, wherever you can.
★★★★½ review by Evan Schwartz on Letterboxd
Seen at Tribeca Film Festival
This is such a crazy and weird story that brings justice and immortality to Jimmy Ellis, a talented man living in Elvis' shadow. It's a sad story, but as Jeanie Finlay said at the Q&A, there's a ton of joy and happiness to be found within. See this movie if you can (praying for a good release), it's a really memorable doc.
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