“If Elvis could make it sounding like Elvis, why can’t I?” This line best sums up the inexplicable futility and cosmic tragedy of the life of Jimmy Ellis, a singer from Orrville, Alabama who skyrocketed to fame in the late seventies and early eighties thanks to his uncanny vocal resemblance to the recently deceased Elvis Presley. Desperate to cash in on the explosion of popularity surrounding the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll after his untimely demise in 1977, record execs rebranded Ellis “Orion,” gave him a mask he was contractually obligated to wear at all times, and created a living urban legend. Who was this masked man who looked and sounded just like Elvis? Never mind that his eyes were the wrong color and he was too tall, the public was so desperate to believe that Elvis wasn’t dead that they embraced Orion with hardly a second thought. But four years and several albums later, Ellis abandoned the Orion persona and struck out on his own again when he realized that “they weren’t clapping for me, they were clapping for a ghost.”
COMING UP TOMORROW: our interview with director Jeanie Finlay
And this is where Jeanie Finlay’s “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” exits the realm of high tragedy and enters that of the absurd. A fascinating documentary, Finlay reconstructs Ellis’ life and career and finds a story so outrageous that it borders on the Kafkaesque. A born musician from his earliest years playing a plastic banjo on his adoptive parents’ farm, Ellis seemed destined for fame. But the very talents that should have made him a household name doomed him to obscurity because he looked and sounded so much like Elvis.
His career relied on him maintaining the Orion persona, a blatant exploitation of Elvis (the original art of his first album included a picture of Orion rising from a casket clearly modeled on the one Elvis was buried in). After leaving Orion behind, Ellis spent years shuffling through a number of other stage names and musical styles including one cringeworthy turn as a thirty-plus year-old Rick Springfield knock-off. In the film’s most heart-breaking sequence, we see Ellis re-adopt the Orion persona in the nineties. The setting for his comeback performance? A high school gymnasium. Funny, compelling, and heart-felt, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King does justice to one of the most bizarre stories in the history of the modern American music industry.
“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.