You could feast for days on all the implications raised by the film Orion: The Man Who Would Be King. Ostensibly, it tells the tale of Jimmy Ellis, an Alabama-born crooner whose uncanny vocal proximity to Elvis brought him to the attention of Sun Records in the late ’70s.
But this wasn’t your grandparents’ Sun Records. Years after playing midwife to rock ’n’ roll, the label had been purchased by a seedy hustler named Shelby Singleton, who put Ellis in a rhinestone-festooned mask, gave him a superhero name, and then marketed him to those still-grieving fans who couldn’t quite accept that the King was dead.
It’s a tragic story beautifully told in Jeanie Finlay’s film, playing at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival. But under its surface, as the Straight’s Brian Lynch acknowledges in his review, there are unsettling echoes of the doppelgänger myth that underscored Presley’s life. Almost 20 years after Ellis’s death, the film also raises questions of increasing relevance in a world obsessed with fame and filled with people busily curating their personas on Facebook.
“That’s one of the things that drew me to the story. We all wear masks. Jimmy’s was just rhinestoned and more obvious,” Finlay told the Straight, calling from Tennessee the day after Orion bagged the grand-jury prize at the Nashville Film Festival.
“Initially, this film was appealing in the same way the record was when I bought it 12 years ago,” the U.K.–born filmmaker continued, referring to Reborn, the singer’s garishly designed debut for Sun. “‘Oh, hey, there’s this crazy image of a guy with a mask on! That’s intriguing!’ And then once you delve under the glitter, you discover the layers, the machinations of the music industry, the construction of identity. ‘What do I really want? Are my dreams toxic? Is it okay to get what I always wanted?’ It made me think about all the people who go on The X Factor and American Idol and The Voice who are thinking, ‘It’s gonna be different for me! I’ll be able to control this situation!’ I think someone says in the film that the music industry is one of the toughest industries of all because it plays on your mind and your emotions. I just totally connected with that. What if there’s this thing that you really love and you want to do, but you have to sacrifice part of yourself to do it? Is it worth it, ultimately?”
On a lighter note, Finlay balked at the notion that some of story’s allure rests in its whopping tastelessness. “Oh, I disagree. I did a TED talk and part of my intro was that I do not believe in guilty pleasures, and I don’t believe in differentiating between high and low culture,” she said, adding that she loves all seven of the albums Orion pumped out for Sun in a three-year period. “I’ve got everything, I’ve got them all, 8-tracks, everything,” she said. “I think ‘Honey’ is amazing and I think the stuff he did before he came to Sun, like ‘Georgia Pines’—his voice is just really pure and beautiful.”
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King screens at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday (May 2) and again on May 9.