I can remember at the age of 14 encountering the records featuring the glittery masked man on the cover. I didn’t really understand what the deal was, and it faded away as one of those weird things you encountered in the 1970s that inevitably came back as a phantom memory that caused you to ask yourself what the hell that was.
It was some years later that I worked at a mail-order record company that bought out the remaining vinyl stock of Sun Records. In those hundreds of boxes sat several albums by the masked man, and so I never really had to ask what the hell that was. I had more of a, oh, yeah, THAT, moment. And before I knew it, I had entered the cult of show biz oddity, Orion.
In the new documentary, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, director Jeanie Finlay takes on the task of revealing Orion to the wider world. The official word, merely suggestive flourishes by sleaze ball Sun Records owner Shelby Singleton, was that he was Elvis reborn.
In a way, this isn’t entirely untrue.
Orion was a guy named Jimmy Ellis who was cursed with a great singing voice, one that he shared with Elvis Presley. His voice was so much like Elvis’ — to these ears, technically better than Elvis’ — that it was career poison. But when Elvis died, several forces conspired, including Ellis’ own desperation for a singing career, to create the character of Orion, who was unceremoniously stolen by Singleton from Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s novel of the same name. This is the woman who would later write Is Elvis Alive.
This would lead to Ellis recording seven albums in three years, building a sizable audience and tour the country, and inhabiting that weird low level of show biz that is often exhilarating to the ones in the fish bowl, but quite sad to those of us looking in.
So if Elvis wasn’t exactly reborn, there were plenty of people around who were willing to buy into the idea that he had — and isn’t belief the most important aspect of any resurrection?
Finlay’s film is a comprehensive look at the tempest in a teapot that was the Orion phenomenon, providing a really insightful examination of that fish bowl and what it’s like to live there, with all the characters that swim around in it. But it’s also a very sympathetic look at Ellis, his life before, during, and after Orion, with access to friends and family, and tons of footage and photos to bring his story to life on the screen, as well as one eyebrow-raising accusation that, in context of the film, has you wishing a couple people in this world would take a DNA test.
It’s hard to say you come out of it liking Ellis, but you do leave with compassion for him, and an understanding of the personal demons that plagued him, and shaped his show business career in such a bizarre way. If his singing voice originally doomed him to obscurity, it also made him the perfect fit for a bizarre footnote in musical history that would snowball into an audacious tall tale that we’re still talking about decades later. Ellis found his legacy, it just wasn’t what he expected.