The story of Jimmy "Orion" Ellis is either one of the greatest cons to be forged in the history of American music or it's one of its greatest unsolved mysteries. It's the story of a masked man with a voice so close to Elvis's that even the King's most die-hard admirers couldn't tell the difference.
The similarities are staggering: Ellis was born to a woman named Gladys (as was Elvis) but was soon adopted, meaning his true identity was never known or discovered. If you then throw in the legendary Sun Records (Elvis's label) as a recording outlet for the singer (his debut album even being called Reborn) and dress him up with a fictional identity, you have Orion: an artist who managed to convince—be it inadvertently or under instruction—thousands that he was indeed the King hidden behind a glitter-strewn mask.
However, behind Orion's elaborate jumpsuits, face masks, velvet-drenched vocals, and sense of enigma was a real, non-Elvis person, a confused human trying to figure himself out while locked into the façade (contractually) of having to live the life of someone else.
Ellis was a simple Southern gent in many ways but also an idiosyncratic oddity in others; his penchant for the ladies over the years ran to such an extent that he carried around with him a suitcase full of polaroids of vaginas taken from sexual encounters he had had with women on the road whom he called "Lucys."
All of this is captured in a new documentary called Orion:
The doc is by Jeanie Finlay, a rising star in British documentary filmmaking, having previously made excellent films like Sound It Out—about the last remaining record shop in Stockton on Tees—or The Great Hip Hop Hoax,the tale of some Scottish chancers taking on the music industry.
After picking up a record of Orion's in a bargain bin, Finlay set about telling his story. I caught up with Finlay back at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest, where the film received its UK premiere, and attempted to gently skip around any spoiler alerts about the film—which is kind of hard.
VICE: When you picked up that Orion record, were you drawn to make a film based on the story and image of him or did the music grab you too?
Jeanie Finlay: It was more the story. I thought the music was interesting. Some of the songs, like "Honey"—used in the title sequence—are amazing. It could be from a David Lynch film. It's haunting and the production is really good but then there are super cheesy songs like "Washing Machine." It was definitely the story.
Orion's son, Jim Jr., who features a lot in the film was initially reticent to speak with you. How did you turn him around?
He agreed, I think a bit reluctantly, to do an interview in person. He assumed that we must be rich and I explained that it was done on a wing and a prayer. Our Nashville-based cameraman had a car and goodwill, we had some development money and bought cheap flights, and one of the guys shooting the film was my husband, so we could split costs. I think he couldn't quite figure it out. He ended up liking us and, when I went back to film on his land, he welcomed us.
What was Orville like to film at and stay in?
You have to remember that Orville is a town with 112 people and people are quite isolated. Somebody's nearest neighbor might be two miles away. It's a very different atmosphere but I think ultimately being a strange, ramshackle British crew in this odd place helped because you can ask stupid questions. It's so small that there wasn't anywhere for us to stay so we had to go to Selma and stay there.
It's very beautiful in a lot of ways but also a place that used to be quite rich but has lost a lot of money over the last 50 years post-segregation—it's an area that used to produce cotton. It's odd, as I was thinking that this film in many ways is about the death of the south. It's not overt but thinking about somewhere like Orville I could really understand why Jimmy wanted to break out and be Orion. You have all these houses that have just been taken over by nature or have no money to put into them anymore and then things like the whites-only schools have been bulldozed. It made for interesting scenes, lots of cotton fields, buildings, and outhouses taken over by vines. That felt really important to show... how it's a place that was not what it once was.
There seems to be a real strand of humanity in your films and you work with people that could be victims instead of heroes. Is that a really important aspect to your filmmaking?
It's massively important to me. I want to make films with all of my heart. I want people to recognize themselves when they see the film and that's for good or bad. I think it's good to challenge your expectations of people as well; we'll often structure the edit so that you feel one way about someone at one point and then differently by the end and you challenge your preconceptions.
Because I make independent films I don't have to answer to anyone and if I had the pressures of a broadcaster or an agenda of those things then it would be a lot more difficult to do that. The freedom of doing that myself means that I am now in a much stronger position to say "this is how I do things."
If you want people to recognize themselves in your films, is there any character within this film, or any of your others, that you most closely see yourself in?
Sound It Out is definitely my most personal film, so I feel like a character in that. It started off as my love/hate letter to the North East [of England] but the process of making the film made me really love the area again. I got my head kicked in in Stockton, like really badly, kicked in the face and beaten up by five girls on a night out so I was always really wary of it there. But I spent a lot of time going home because my mom was ill with breast cancer and Sound It Out Records was the only place worth going to, so I just felt compelled to make the film.
Combined with your last film, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, you've had a good root around in the various corners of the music industry. What are your overall feelings on the music and film industry from your experiences?
I thought about it a lot because of the rise of programs like the X Factor and The Voice, I hate them, I can't watch them. They break my heart, I feel like you can see people's hearts snapping. It's about the industry, it's got nothing to do with if you're a good singer or not. I find them really difficult to watch but it's always been the same.
I've not been purposely going out to make these music industry films but I've been compelled to do so because they're portraits of layered identities and about maintaining who you are when you're doing what you want to do. That's got a lot of resonance for me as a filmmaker—how do you get your story out there without having to compromise it, to get money?
Orion was something of a victim to the mechanics of the music industry. Did you come away liking him after making the film?
It kind of waxed and waned throughout the process. He loved the ladies and everyone kept telling me that over and over again. Quite often I would be told 'oh, he'd have loved your hair' and I was like 'am I supposed to take that as a compliment?' He certainly didn't make some of the best life choices, but I felt utterly compelled about his situation.
There are a lot of unanswered question in the film overall. Was it always your intention to leave things unanswered or where you left without answers yourself?
The film is about rumor and story telling, not to do with belief. I didn't push that side of things too hard, like trying to get his birth certificate. All the American screenings people were like, 'why didn't you get the DNA' but that would be a different film and not the one I wanted to make.
Lastly, any idea of what happened to the bizarre suitcase of polaroids?Apparently it was burnt. It is no more.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is in cinemas from Friday, September 25.