This engaging British documentary remembers the ultimate Elvis impersonator.
The career of an Elvis Presley lookalike (and more importantly, soundalike) who first struggled to distinguish himself as a singer, then found success as a masked doppelganger after Elvis’ death, is recounted in “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King,” a documentary from Blighty that lays out this bizarre and sad slice of Americana in a mostly catchy, engaging manner. Much more of a downer than “Searching for Sugar Man” — but also less daffy than last year’s “The Identical,” of which it sometimes plays like a docu version — the film poses disquieting questions about the precariousness of fame and fandom. Just as its hero struggled to break through on his own terms, director Jeanie Finlay’s movie seems most likely to find its audience at the arthouse, where it will play to aficionados of the music industry and the King.
According to a friend of Jimmy Ellis — even the name contains an echo of the real thing — the film’s subject had a singing voice that would be mistaken for Elvis’ at least as early as high school. Unable to consent to a record contract that was offered before he was of age, Ellis reluctantly went to work training horses in the family business. His attempts to start a singing career of his own went nowhere, but Elvis’ death in 1977 sparked a new opportunity, courtesy of Shelby Singleton (1931-2009), the producer who took over the Sun Records catalog and who is portrayed as a kind of Mephistophelian figure of the Nashville music industry.
Uncredited, Ellis recorded a version of “Save the Last Dance for Me” with Jerry Lee Lewis. Taking inspiration from a speculative novel by Gail Brewer-Giorgio, Ellis, with the help of various handlers, became a masked stage figure known as Orion — a cross between Presley and the Lone Ranger, per one news report. The mask, coupled with the uncanny vocal resemblance, apparently helped fans believe he was the genuine article, despite the fact that he was taller, a decade younger and looked a lot less like Elvis with his mask off. In a moment in which “Orion” seems to succumb to the same mythmaking it seeks to unpack, the movie suggests that the adopted Ellis may have been the biological son of Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley.
We’re told that Ellis was contractually obligated to wear his mask whenever he was in the public eye — an arrangement that Jim Ellis Jr., his son, says his father likened to wearing a paper bag over his head. The older Ellis, who died in 1998, is seen in clips and frequently heard in audio, which gives the doc a ghostly feel.
Although some of the principal figures in the film have died, Finlay captures a large cross-section of Orion’s circle reflecting on the charade and the degree to which they saw a willfully credulous audience as complicit in preserving the illusion. “Orion” also deals with Ellis’ post-mask years, when he tried to restart his career under various pseudonyms and made an unsuccessful attempt to market himself to the Rick Springfield crowd. In his tragic last days, he ran a package store and pawn shop.
The central irony of the movie is that it’s clear that Ellis had talent; his chief liability, which initially prevented him from getting on the radio and, throughout his career, stymied his attempts to become his own man, was that he sounded like Elvis — something he found unfair. As Ellis says, “Elvis sounded like Elvis.”
“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” provides a stark answer to the question of whether success has more to do with skill or luck, and the movie might have benefited from a less straightforward presentation to match the slipperiness of the issues it raises. (The film also belabors its points a bit, even at less than 90 minutes.) But “Orion” is carried along by the oddness of its story and its vivid whirl of personalities, along with its soundtrack, full of Ellis renditions that in another life might have rocked the world.