Orion: The Man Who Would Be King


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
"With such a fascinating subject, it's hard for director Jeanie Finlay to go wrong." | Photo: Sun Records

We all know the archetypal rock n' roll story. It's remarkable close to Joseph Campbell's hero archetype. An ordinary farm boy who turns out to have mysterious origins grows up dreaming of a more exciting life, is propelled to stardom by an unexpected twist of fate and goes on to be adored by millions before meeting with a sudden and tragic end. This was the story of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n' Roll. It was also the story of Jimmy Ellis, better known as Orion. But it was Elvis' success that shaped Jimmy's life.

Born in Mississippi in 1945, Jimmy grew up singing to entertain his friends. As the King rose to fame, no-one could help but notice the startling similarity in their voices. Could they have been related? This documentary touches briefly on that possibility, but doesn't make too much of it - it's not really the point. Wherever it came from, Jimmy had a remarkable talent. Though he was also skilled with horses (he trained three world champions), he longed to have a singing career. The problem was that Elvis had got there first, and although he had a lot of original material, everybody saw him as a mere impersonator.

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Then Elvis died.

Just before the death of the King, author Gail Brewer-Giorgio wrote a book about a fictional rick star who faked his own death in order to reclaim his life. In 1976, she just happened to see Ellis in concert. The idea was too perfect. Unscrupulous record producers persuaded Jimmy to wear a mask and relaunched his career under the character's name, Orion. Elvis fans, mourning and ready to cling to any shred of hope, went crazy. This was the start of the endless rumours that the King was alive. it propelled Orion to superstar status, but it didn't take long for Jimmy to figure out that even up there on the stage in front of adoring crowds, he was invisible.

With such a fascinating subject, it's hard for director Jeanie Finlay to go wrong. Parts of this film are a little too slow, but overall it holds together well, with a wealth of archive footage and a lot of story to tell. Jimmy's remarkable voice provides ideal musical accompaniment to his own story, and interview fragments enable him to tell parts of it himself. Ex-wives, music industry professionals and old friends from his farming days fill in the rest. It might have been interesting to see some comment from the Presley family, but it's perhaps understandable if this is a matter they'd rather forget. There's a suggestion that Jimmy himself was uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of the Orion venture - he just desperately wanted to chance to have a singing career.

Like many music documentaries, this is at its most interesting when dealing with failure rather than success. Jimmy's loss of identity and struggle to accept the ephemeral nature of fame emerge through the material, with relatively little need for explanation. Viewers with marketing skills will be twitching at the opportunities squandered; nobody who knows the music industry will be surprised to hear how little money Jimmy ended up with. This is an intriguing portrait of a complicated man which may result, finally, in people seeking out his work for its own sake.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2015
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The mystery and surprising history of the man with Elvis Presley's voice.
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Director: Jeanie Finlay

Writer: Jeanie Finlay

Year: 2015

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, UK

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