Cinema Review: Orion: The Man Who Would Be King | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, November 29th, 2020  

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Studio: Sundance Selects
Directed by Jeanie Finlay

Dec 01, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In the 30 years since his death, Elvis’ star still shines. The sparkly white jumpsuits, “Hound Dog," Graceland - these are universally-known symbols in his secular iconography. His true fans display a medieval fervor: collecting infinite varieties of mass-produced relics, keeping the legend alive through endless acquisition. We rarely question how his sovereignty came to pass (or if it was meritoriously earned). It has been decreed through myth and great management: Elvis was, is, and will always be the One True King of Rock and Roll. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King explores the effects of the cultish power of the Elvis legend on one man’s life.

An uncanny Elvis soundalike, Jimmy Ellis was a reluctant disciple. He struggled throughout the 70s to make a name for himself, but after a string of unsuccessful singles (including “I’m Not Trying to Be Like Elvis”), Ellis’ career was definitively stalled out in nightclub act territory. It was clear there was only room for one raven-haired, vibrato-laden crooner. But then, Elvis died, and Ellis saw the break he had been searching for. Combining forces with unscrupulous Sun Records head Shelby Singleton and a novelist who had invented an elaborate fan-fiction based on the premise that Elvis had faked his own death and was now performing under an alias, Ellis was convinced to don a bedazzled Lone Ranger mask and Orion was born. Between the kitsch-factor of the mask gimmick, Ellis’ convincing performances, and the desperation of Elvis fans looking for any clue that their idol lived on, Orion blossomed into a sensation. Ellis was quickly disillusioned by being the star without a face, but it was years before he finally took off the mask for good and gave up his dreams of stardom.

In Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, director Jeanie Finlay focuses exclusively on telling Ellis’ story, giving the man behind the mask a soul as well as a face. The film overcomes the obvious limitations of scarce resources documenting its central figure through interviews with those who surrounded Ellis in his personal and professional life and succeeds in reclaiming some dignity for the would-be star. Finlay chooses to steer away from the tabloid-driven conspiracy theory aspects of the Orion story, only teasingly engaging in certain aspects of the various rumors and the accompanying cash-grabs that held Ellis prisoner for so many years. Unfortunately, outside of the Orion phenomenon, Ellis’ life events aren’t unique enough to retain interest. It’s clear from the start that Ellis will never come close to getting out from under Elvis’ shadow, so ultimately the reluctance to deeply engage with the strange symbiosis of hysterical mass fandom and the entertainment industry’s willingness to self-cannibalize makes Orion feel a little thin. Much like Jimmy Ellis, there’s not really that much to talk about once the mask and all the mystery that accompanies it is taken away.

Author rating: 5/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10


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