Screen Comment critic Nate Hood recently attended the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and reviewed the film “Orion: the Man who would be King” (his article is available online). He met with director Jeanie Finlay afterwards.
I had the opportunity to check out Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” a couple of days ago and I was blown away by it. So how did you first hear about “Orion?”
Jeanie Finlay: So, twelve years ago I was—I live in Nottingham, in England—and I collect vintage records and stuff and my husband were at a yard sale, we call them “car boot” sales–We found an Orion record. And it was Orion Reborn with him and his hands on his hips with the blue—the big hair…
The one that originally had a picture of him rising up from the coffin?
Yeah. So, we found the blue Orion Reborn and took it home and just thought, “Oh, this is great. It’s like a pound.” We took it home and played it and it was like, “This is really confusing.” ‘Cause it’s Sun Records, which is obviously a record label, and it’s gold vinyl, and then there’s this weird story on the back about a man who fakes his death. We played the songs and was like, “Well, Elvis didn’t record these. This is really odd.” So we just did some research and found Jimmy Ellis’ story and then just was intrigued and thought I want to make a film about the man under the mask. Because as soon as you—as soon as I saw the mask I just wanted to…take a peek. *laughs* And I loved the idea that the story was just—was there to be uncovered. You know, this is not a well known story. It was just completely accidental.
I consider myself fairly well versed in music history, but I had never heard of Orion or Jimmy Ellis, so—
Yeah, no, I think if you don’t live in the South, that you may not have heard—
I was born and raised in the South and—
Oh, no kidding? Where?
I was born and raised in Florida and then in Texas. And I had never heard of him before and I’ve got family who worship Elvis, y’know—
Well, I like the idea that this, like, pocket of activity happened pre-google; it was special and contained. So anyways, six years ago—I had been making docs for a little while—and I just thought, “Oh, I’m going to make Orion. I’m going to try and make it.”
There are a lot of similarities between Jimmy Ellis’ life and Elvis’, the most potent being that they both died prematurely: Elvis died of a drug overdose, Jimmy Ellis died in a failed—in an attempted robbery. And what I wanted to know was, did they ever find the person they did that or did they arrest him?
Yeah, there was two brothers or cousins—we put it in the film but we took it out because it’s Jimmy’s story—it’s basically, someone in their family put them, took them to the police. And they got arrested. I think there was three people who were finally arrested. But the main person’s now on Death Row and now has been for…15 years?
Wow. And was Jimmy the only one who was killed in that robbery? Because I know that three people were shot.
Three people were shot: Helen King’s in the film, and then Elaine, his ex-wife, was killed, and then he was killed.
That was, that was just heart-breaking to see. One of the most interesting parts of the film, in my opinion, was when you went into Jimmy Ellis’ birth records where you said that—he doesn’t really look like Elvis—but he’s a dead ringer for Elvis’ dad. And that the name of Jimmy’s birth mother was also Gladys and from Mississippi.
The reason why I was so interested in that in the film was that it seemed to be like a story that Shelby Singleton [the notorious owner of Sun Records] would make up to market Orion. But it was a story that all of his friends, well, most of his friends, believed. They believed it to be true. And it just seemed to me…what if? *laughs* But, to know definitively would be like taking the mask off. You don’t want to know. But also the thing that’s interesting as well, the reason why it comes where it does in the film is, if he was, he still didn’t want to be associated with Elvis. He wanted to be his own man.
He wanted to be Jimmy Ellis.
Exactly. So he spent his whole career trying to be Jimmy Ellis…what if, the reason why he sounded like Elvis was because he was related to him?
John Ford once wrote: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And I think that’s what’s so interesting: this is like the perfect legend. One of the main things in the film was how—Orion took off because the public so desperately wanted to believe in the fantasy that Elvis was still alive—
—and it seems like some kind of cruel cosmic joke, that he looked a bit like Elvis—he was a bit taller and had different colored eyes—but he looked a bit like Elvis, he sounded just like Elvis, even had similar names: Ellis and Elvis. This just seemed like a story that had been tailor made to create an urban legend or a myth and the fact that it’s real is so outrageous.
Yeah, and that’s the reason why I like making documentaries. Sometimes you just discover stories that you can’t make up.
One of the major themes I’ve noticed in your filmography is the idea of identity—personal identity. Another is the music industry—how the music industry crosses over with cultural identity. For example, SOUND IT OUT (2011) was about the last vinyl record shop in Teesside. But the film that I found the most interesting was THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX (2013)—which also seems like a companion piece to ORION—
Totally. Well, I was making both at the same time.
It’s about two Scottish rappers who “become” American to try and get a record deal—
Based on what they’ve seen on television.
—and it works. And these two Scottish rappers—Silibil n’ Brains—decided to become Americans but Jimmy was sorta forced into becoming Orion.
The hip hop boys made a choice. They designed their future, then it ran away with them.
Was this your first time shooting a documentary in America?
I shot GOTH CRUISE (2008)—well, that was on the water, it wasn’t in America. That was like my first documentary in the States. The very first time I went to America I went to Missoula, Montana for a film festival. I remember stopping New York in a snow storm to have a meeting on making GOTH CRUISE—
What year was this?
2005 or 2006. Maybe 2007. Anyhow, I showed my first film in Missoula and then GOTH CRUISE was commissioned really quickly to pilot for IFC. Then I was in Portland, North Carolina, Tampa, and New York and filming on a pilot shoot. And that was crazy. Because, geographically—in England you can just drive and you’re there. Nowhere’s that far, you can just drive anywhere to make a film. And then, culturally, I’ve never felt more British than when I was filming in the South for ORION. *laughs*
Many of your documentaries are not just about identity, they’re about British identity: “Nottingham Lace” (2010), “Sound it out,” “The great hip hop hoax.” But now you’re in America.
And making a film about the South. *laughs*
What was that like? What was it like filming in the South as a British documentarian? Was it any different, were the people different, the subjects different, or…?
Yeah, I mean, I got called “Miss Jeanie” a lot and I drank a lot of iced tea—sweet tea. *laughs* It took a little while for people to stop being so polite. You know, and to stop telling you the “polite” story. But you know what, I think in a way, being a complete outsider—like, you know, in all of my films I’ve always been like the outsider, you know, I’m not a hip hop person, I was the only woman in SOUND IT OUT, except for the woman who works there occasionally. When I did GOTH CRUISE I didn’t “goth up.” But this, I was just the odd British woman. And there was some resistance, initially, the idea “why isn’t this story being made by somebody from Alabama?” But it was like: “Because no one wants to. Or no one has.”
Or nobody knows about the story.
Or I want to make this. But once they came on board they really came on board and were incredibly generous with their time and—it’s just really, the amount of space people have in the States, outside of the coast, is insane! *laughs* It’s really confusing.
I know! Like I said, I grew up in Texas and we had this joke: “You drive five hours and you’re still in Texas.” But in Europe you drive five hours and you could potentially go through three different countries. So properties are much bigger here in the States, too.
I know! It’s crazy!
There’s this huge emphasis on having “a yard” and “a backyard” and “property.”
I mean, British people aren’t opposed to that as well, but it’s just different. Like, we all live much closer together. I was explaining to Jimmy Ellis, Jr. that I can see the next person’s house from my own house. I know all my neighbors because they’re all on the street. My house is detached, but loads of the houses aren’t. They’re all stuck together—you can hear the people next door. And he was just: “I can’t believe that.” *laughs* Because his next neighbor was driving distance away—you had to get in a car and drive there. It’s just very different. But, I’m genuinely interested in people.
Oh, of course.
And I think that’s something that—people like telling their stories, or being heard, I think.
It can take a little egging on sometimes because, as you said, decorum and politeness are very important down South.
Yeah, absolutely. And there’s the whole idea that if you’re British you must be rich, posh, know the Queen…
Well, there could be worst stereotypes, I guess.
So, what are you planning to do next?
I don’t know, is the honest answer.
You don’t know?
I’m not sure. Because I’ve been so busy. I’ve made 6 features in 10 years. I’ve been rotating the films. I started ORION then I started THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX. Then they stalled, I made SOUND IT OUT, I went back to HIP HOP HOAX…so I’ve got a couple of films I’d like to make, but I’m looking for a good woman. *laughs* In SOUND IT OUT you hear my voice but that’s the only real female presence in the film. HIP HOP HOAX was about two men.
But there were a lot of women interview subjects in that film.
Well, yeah, but I want to make a film where the key focus is a woman. But I’m also thinking of making something that isn’t about music, as well…I’ve got a couple of ideas—I’ve been offered a few things but—
I’m just going to guess: you can’t really comment on them at this point?
No, no, I can’t. *laughs* But I’ll do some pop videos when I go back.
No kidding? That’ll be a lot of fun.
Oh yeah. It’ll be a great opportunity to play with drones and mess around. *laughs*
What question have you always wanted to be asked during an interview that you have not yet had the chance to answer?
Oh my goodness.
And then that’ll be my last question.
Oh my god. *pauses* I don’t know. You’ve completely stumped me. I don’t know, actually…well, I’m really interested in the lying that goes on in interviews…so maybe what’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?
A-ha! Alright! What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?
Oh my god—I’m just a rubbish liar. *laughs* I just can’t get away with it…I find that lies always catch you up in the end, I think. My producer and I have this thing where we never lie with each other. I mean, the film industry is full of lies—people assume that you’re lying sometimes.
And ORION and THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX are both about lies coming back to bite the people who tell them.
Well, it has been such an honor and a pleasure to talk with you.
Oh, why thank you!
(Photos of the director by Nate Hood)