Film Review: Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

This eye-opening documentary details the life and career of Jimmy Ellis, a country-and-western singer with the wonderful/terrible fortune to sound uncannily like Elvis Presley.
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Jimmy Hughes Bell was born in Mississippi in 1945 to a single mother and surrendered for adoption at age two; his birth certificate listed his mother's name as Gladys Bell and his father's as simply "Vernon." He was adopted three years later by R.F. and Mary Faye Ellis, who gave him their surname and raised him in Orville, Alabama, where he started singing at church and local talent contests. As a teenager he also trained and showed high-stepping Tennessee walking horses, and he got an athletic scholarship to a junior college in Georgia; he married in 1968. All the while he kept on singing, and no one who heard him could help but notice that he sounded uncannily like Elvis Presley: One of his first recordings, for a small regional label, was the single "I'm Not Trying To Be Elvis,” and he later signed with Sun Records.

Ellis performed as "Orion," a name borrowed from an unpublished novel, his image carefully shaped by Sun executive Shelby Singleton. He appeared onstage in the same sort of chest-baring shirts, tight trousers favored by the mid-career Presley, topped by a domino mask, and performing similar material, a rich mix of gospel, country and rockabilly influences. He built a fan base by touring, but a Chicago Tribune article considering the possibility that this masked singer just might be The King himself helped make Orion a phenomenon–there were plenty of Elvis Presley fans who wanted to believe The King's ignominious death by OD was part of a gigantic hoax, and that he was still alive and performing incognito.

A more preposterous story is hard to imagine, and writer-director Jeanie Finlay, who specializes in documentaries about fringe musicians and discovered Orion via a flea-market album whose cover caught her eye, tells it as soberly as it's possible to tell what nonetheless sounds like at every turn line an outrageous shaggy-dog story. Ellis himself was painfully aware that the conflation of personality and a thoroughly artificial person was psychologically treacherous ground, but he also seemed to have a pretty fair idea what opting out of the game would mean for his career.

It seems a shame that Finlay couldn't interview him–he died before she crossed paths with that fateful album–but his presence isn't really missed. Orion's unlikely career arc, from his uncredited introduction via backing vocals on a Jerry Lee Lewis single to appearing with fellow masked-men KISS, was predicated on absence. The documentary could as easily have been called He's Not There.

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