Review: Jeanie Finlay’s Orion – The Man Who Would Be King

A man who was haunted by a ghost…

A documentary of astounding depth and articulation, Jeanie Finlay’s work tells the untold story of Jimmy ‘Orion’ Ellis, a masked rock ‘n’ roll singer who became the victim of someone else’s fame. It all began when Finlay bought a £1 record 12 years ago and, in her words, this film is ‘what happened when I looked under the mask.’

Jimmy Ellis, a talented musician who had a voice remarkably similar to Elvis’s southern drawl, was struggling to make his talent shown with the identity ‘Jimmy Ellis’ when an unlikely opportunity knocked on his door. In the wake of Elvis’s death in 1977, Shelby Singleton, the then-tyrant of Sun Record label, encouraged Jimmy Ellis to assume a new masked identity. The masked-man-who-sounded-like-the-King was embraced by the fans of Elvis, soon became the ghost-like reincarnation of their idol at the epicentre of their grief.

This is where the root of the tragedy that surrounds the life of Jimmy ‘Orion’ Ellis stems: his identity was never chosen by himself but by those surrounding him. Be it the masked-man for Shelby Singleton, the Elvis-is-alive man for the King’s mourners, or even Jimmy Ellis, the name given to him by his foster parents, it is apparent that he was a man who had spent his life being told who he was. Adopting the name ‘Orion’ from Gail Brewer Giorgio’s 1978 novel and the fictional birthplace of ‘Ribbonsville,’ it seems that the identities enforced upon him displaced completely the ‘real’ Jimmy Ellis. As the film comments, the pressures of the music world are rooted in the industry’s emotion: in order to succeed, musicians have to project the created image their audience wants to see and communicate the emotions they want to feel. Finlay’s documentary is an attempt to recover what the music industry took from Jimmy, to return to him his true identity and introduce the real man behind the mask to the world.

*Spoiler warning for the passages below*

There are immense difficulties with documentaries that are constructed upon archival retrospect, yet these are obstacles that Finlay undoubtedly overcomes, and eventually triumphs over. Instead of trying to reconcile omissions, Finlay incorporates the absences and holes that exist in the life of Jimmy Ellis into the overarching narrative. The film itself, whilst being incredibly realistic, inevitably touches upon sensitive issues and different wild guesses, all of which Finlay handled with upmost professionalism and wit.

It is Finlay’s combined ability to anticipate the viewer’s needs in the documentary, and reconcile the moments of emotive tensions in Jimmy’s life that makes the film an immensely moving experience

The fundamental absent presence in the documentary is Jimmy Ellis himself, who died in 1998. Notably, Finlay does not assume to fill the void of Jimmy in the telling of his own life-story, but acknowledges her own limitation as a documentarian building up from fragments left from his life. The documentary rests on Finlay’s ability to mediate the tensions that exist within these fragments. She objectively balances the film on the material available to her – photographs, home videos, and interview sessions. She satiates the viewer’s need for respite along the journey of Jimmy’s life by interspersing the narrative with moments of haunting, reflective cinematography of the American South, and successfully shifts the soundtrack between the dynamic moments of success and the intimate moments of hardship in Jimmy’s career. Furthermore, she fulfils the role of silent, rational documentarian whilst also successfully anticipating when, as viewers, we require her to be the mouthpiece for the questions that arise. It is Finlay’s combined ability to anticipate the viewer’s needs in the documentary, and reconcile the moments of emotive tensions in Jimmy’s life that makes the film an immensely moving experience.

Finlay does not attempt, like Shelby Singleton, to bring rock ‘n’ roll singers back from the dead. Instead, she strives to tell the untold story of the vibrant life of Jimmy ‘Orion’ Ellis. Orion: the Man Who Would Be King is indisputably a story of sadness. Yet we also witness a returning of identity to the man who exists in that sadness – a man, it seems, of distinctive dimensions finally released from the shackles of his mask.