The art of film-making is alive and well in Jeanie Finlay’s new feature-length documentary ORION: The Man Who Would Be King, which has its world premiere on Friday, April 17, 2015 as part of Tribeca Film Festival. In today’s 48 Minutes, we share the unbelievable story behind the film. You may have to pinch yourself, twice.
British artist and documentary filmmaker Jeanie Finlay has long been fascinated with stories that peek under the surface of popular culture and the machinations of the music industry, or stories that explore just how important music is in our lives. Stories like The Great Hip Hop Hoax about two Scottish chancers who faked their way to a record deal by pretending to be American rappers; Sound It Out about the very last record shop in Finlay’s home town of Teesside or Goth Cruise, a documentary about 150 goths taking a cruise in the sunshine to Bermuda.
Finlay’s latest film ORION: The Man Who Would Be King explores a roller coaster tale of the Nashville music scene in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death; a story of deception, a quest for success, a search for identity and a tragic conclusion.
The story starts in Tennessee in 1979 with this report on the country music talk show Nashville Now:
“There are many that believe that Elvis is still alive. If he is alive he wears a mask and goes by the name Orion.”
Twenty six years later in Nottingham, England, Finlay was wandering through a garage sale with her husband and unearthed an obscure album by an artist called Orion. It’s on the Sun Records label, limited edition gold vinyl, guy in a blue rhinestone-studded mask on the cover. No songs she’d ever heard of, but that cover… She wondered who that mysterious masked man was.
“I took the record home, put it on and within seconds the mystery deepened. Whoever this guy was, he sounded exactly, and I mean exactly, like Elvis. Except these weren’t songs that Elvis ever recorded, and there was no mention of the King on the record. But it was on Sun Records and there was this odd story on the back sleeve about a guy called Orion Eckley Darnell and something about a coffin, and a book. Most of all, though, there was this mysterious man, standing hand on hips, with his perfect raven hair and sta-prest trousers, in a blue rhinestone-studded mask with the voice of Elvis. Just who was this Orion guy? What was his story? I had to know more.”
What Finlay discovered was one of the strangest stories she’d ever encountered. Even if you’ve never heard of Orion, you probably know about the ‘Elvis is Alive’ myth. Finlay uncovered that the story of Orion is source of the myth, and here it is.
In the marketing offices of Sun Records, maverick producer Shelby Singleton came up with a plan to utilize the incredible pipes of Alabama singer Jimmy Ellis, a voice which was both a blessing and a curse to the singer. Ellis had found it hard to get a solid foothold in the industry because of the similarity of his voice to Elvis’, a similarity that was wholly unpracticed. Jimmy didn’t try to sound like Elvis, he just did. That made it hard for any record company to use him.
Singleton had already tried one tack, dubbing Jimmy Ellis’ vocals uncredited onto the Jerry Lee Lewis tracks in the Sun catalogue, releasing the recording under the name of Jerry Lee Lewis ‘and friends’. He’d leave it up to the audience to come to the conclusion, if they saw fit, that it might just be a previously unheard recording from the depths of the Sun vaults. After all, that voice sounded just like Elvis.
But it wasn’t until Singleton came across the intriguing novel Orion by Georgia writer Gail Brewer Giorgio that the stars aligned for Jimmy Ellis. Gail’s book told the story of how the world’s greatest rock star faked his own death. As a character, he wasn’t a million miles away from a certain Memphis-dwelling King. It was a fantasy that could so easily be true. A fantasy that could be made true.
In a move that Singleton himself later described as “part madman, part genius,” Sun Records put a mask on Jimmy Ellis, rechristened him Orion and unleashed him on an unsuspecting world. In Ellis, Singleton had ‘the voice’, and now he had a book that gave him a name, and a backstory. Borne by his incredible voice, Jimmy Ellis as the masked and rhinestoned Orion, gained the success he’d always craved, the women he’d always desired and the adoration of screaming masses.
“Everyone wants a mask to hide behind if they fail. But If I succeed … who am I?” Jim Ellis JR, son of Jimmy Ellis.
In the midst of a growing identity crisis, the deception of living a lie for five years became too much for Ellis and he self-destructed, ripping off his mask and thereby tearing up his ticket to fame. What came next would be even more tragic….
Finlay’s feature-length documentary ORION: The Man Who Would Be King revels in the manipulative schemes of the music industry, the truth and lies at the heart of Jimmy Ellis’ story, the allure of fantasy and the eternal search for identity. The story of Orion proves that fact is indeed ‘stranger than fiction’. Her film tells the story behind that story.
Tickets for the world premiere of ORION: The Man Who Would Be King, at 6pm on Friday, April 17 at Bowtie Cinemas Chelsea are available through the Tribeca Film Festival website.
You can find out more about the documentary here.