Films somehow lend themselves easily to the lives of musical performers, even if those lives are unhappy ones. In the last decade the stories of James Brown, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and most recently Amy Winehouse have been among those adapted for the big screen.
All those artists, of course, had their various troubles and setbacks, yet were massively successful at some stage in their careers. So why would you set about making a film about someone whose attempts at fame turned into miserable failure?
Signed to Sun records
British documentary maker Jeanie Finlay has done precisely that with Orion: The Man Who Would Be King – and it’s riveting.
Orion was the stage name of one Jimmy Ellis, from a small town in Alabama, who had a voice remarkably similar to Elvis Presley’s. He turned pro as a singer, recorded for some small local labels, performed at nightclubs in the American South, but his career essentially went nowhere. He gave up the music business, then returned to it when he signed for Sun Records (Presley’s first label), but again failed to make much impact.
The death of Elvis
The turning point in his career came when Presley died in 1977 at age 42, amid scenes of widespread grief. The following year, Ellis’s voice was dubbed on to an old Sun recording by Jerry Lee Lewis of Save The Last Dance For Me. The album was coyly titled Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends, to keep the identity of Lewis’s accompanying singer an intriguingly open question. (I sought the track out on Spotify; you’d swear that was Presley taking the second verse.)
But then Ellis began to capitalize on the similarity between his voice and Presley’s. He assumed the stage name Orion, from a sensationalist novel about a musical megastar who fakes his own death.
Sounding like Elvis
As Orion, he started to wear a range of cheesy masks on stage – like the Lone Ranger’s, but considerably more gaudy. He did not
perform Presley’s actual hits, but sang very much in his style. Near the start of Finlay’s film, Ellis is seen singing the Everly
Brothers’ hit Ebony Eyes, and Bobby Goldsboro’s maudlin Honey. He sounds uncannily like Presley.
Astonishingly, a proportion of his audiences convinced themselves that this really was The King returned from the grave, and followed Orion avidly. (This despite the fact that Ellis was 10 years younger than Presley, was much taller and did not really resemble him.)
He made records, toured and seemed to have an entourage of available women following him from town to town. But he never made the big time, and grew to hate the mask – which he could never take off in public for fear of spoiling the illusion.
Behind the mask
Yet he did finally tear the mask off – during a live performance – and his career waned.
Put simply, if people wanted to see Orion at all, they wanted him with his awful mask. Orion might have had some kind of a following, however ghoulish, but Jimmy Ellis never did.
Finlay, clearly working on a modest budget (the film was crowd-sourced), relates this bizarre story with admirable fairness and clarity, reinforced by first-hand accounts from people who knew Ellis.
A sad story
She has a knack for telling stories about the underbelly of the music world – her brilliant 2011 documentary Sound It Out (well worth tracking down) was a heartening, poignant story about the owners and customers of the last remaining vinyl record store in run-down Stockton-on-Tees.
But what a sad story this is, and how fickle fame can be – especially when manipulated by an often less than ethical music industry. One interviewee in Orion says admiringly of Jimmy Ellis: “If there’d never been an Elvis, he’d have been Elvis.” Trouble is, there was an Elvis – and Ellis’s attempts to be a star were doomed by that simple fact.
Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month.