Director Jeanie Finlay’s documentary “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows the story of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis, a masked singer whose voice sounded exactly like that of the King of Rock. Not only did the crooner have the voice, but he also had the look — tall and thin with a black pompadour — leading many fans to believe that Elvis must have faked his own death and was intent on wearing a mask while he continued to perform.
Finlay’s documentary opens with the pandemonium surrounding Presley’s death, when young women were crying and fainting in the summer heat over the news that their favorite god-like singer was dead. The film then quickly shifts to Ellis’ childhood, examining his history through the use of voiceover and old photos. It’s an abrupt shift: The movie begins as an intriguing mystery (Who is Orion? Is he really Elvis reborn? Why does he wear a mask?), but quickly fades to a slow crawl, much like the speaking cadence of the many interviewees.
Ellis, adopted as a young child, had always dreamed of becoming a singer. After selling off his horses and ranch, he headed to Los Angeles to try and make it, but quickly found that sounding exactly like the most famous singer on the planet wasn’t exactly a good thing. Only after Presley’s death was Ellis able to make a career for himself through a twisted gimmick and the demands of a money-hungry manager. Not an impersonator per se, as “Orion,” Ellis sort of pretended to be Elvis, and for the rest of his career, performed in a mask while he playfully avoided answering any questions about his identity.
It’s the typical story of an artist being exploited by more powerful people, yet many would argue that Ellis brings it upon himself, through a sort of soul-selling decision. Do documentaries like this one, then, strive to somehow “make it right”? There are plenty of artists who have lost their way, lost their chance or who may have made it were it not for one reason or another. Is it interesting enough that Ellis’ story just so happened to be that someone who sounded like him was already famous? The answer is no, not really.
Like many of Elvis’ songs, the story becomes repetitive. Talking heads offer historical accounts of the scene at Sun Records, in Nashville and on the road with Orion, but all they can do is repeat that Ellis’ voice and looks, which worked for Presley, ended up being his downfall.
It’s difficult, no doubt, to document a story when the subject you’re examining is no longer alive. Having died during a shocking robbery in 1998, Ellis isn’t around to give a current account of the experience. The juxtaposition of his dashed hopes against his ironclad determination are only relayed through those who knew him, which becomes one of the film’s fatal flaws. Another is its length — the story here could have been parsed down, tightened up and made into a great hour-long episode of “Independent Lens.”
“Orion” does pick up some momentum late in the film with the suggestion that Ellis may in fact have been related to Elvis Presley. Ellis bares a striking resemblance to Vernon Presley, and the film notes that Ellis’ birth certificate had the name Vernon, with no last name, listed in the section devoted to his father. Finlay could have spent more time exploring this coincidence, but one can only assume that the mystery has been pushed as far as it can go.
“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.