Exclusive first glimpse of the Orion: The Man That Would Be King poster.
Listen to the track above. Those piepes belong to a Southern boy whose poor origins led to a love of gospel music and a need to be on stage—not to mention a rapacious appetite for women. If you’re following me down the dusty track I’m walkin’, you’ll know I’m insinuating that Elvis is singing this ditty, and yet “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was released in 1981, four years after the King left the building.
It’s part of the myth-making charted by documentarian Jeanie Finlay in her new film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, an investigation into the masked man heavily marketed by Sun Records as the next Elvis Presley. (Or maybe Elvis never died?) He wore the same sort of ornate jumpsuits as mid-70s Elvis, he styled his quiff stiff and tall like Elvis, and he let sideburns make inroads towards his chin. Just like Elvis. No matter that Orion didn’t have The King’s cheeky smile, or that he was four inches taller. Or that if Elvis really were alive, he wouldn’t be… pretending to be Elvis.
But Sun Records met the demand, plugged a hole, and created a legend that thousands of Elvis fans lined up to throw their money and panties at. Nottinham-born filmmaker Finlay—whose previous work includes this fascinating doc, The Great Hip-hop Hoax, about two scamming Scots—traveled to the Southern States, grabbing interviews with people who knew Orion and who can attest to the corrosive effects of being a pre-internet viral sensation.
The result is not only the story of the man and the myth, but an examination of the dichotomy between success and happiness. When Orion’s son says he “would not advise anybody to waste their life doing [music]… It’s a one in a million deal”—every one of us who’s ever been in a band dies a little inside.
We talked to Finlay about chasing down the specter of Orion, the Faustian facets of fame, and Orion's little suitcase packed with Polaroids of "Lucys" (that's a weird euphemism for female genitalia, by they way). Read on, watch the trailer below, and if you're in NYC go see the film at a screening this week and/or next.
Noisey: First up, there’s the voice—throughout the film I had to pinch myself, reminding my brain that I wasn’t listening to Elvis.
Jeanie Finlay: Yeah, I think that’s what thousands of people did [Laughs]. I think that’s the magic. It could just be... is it? Isn’t it? Because these are songs that Elvis never recorded, they’re all Orion songs...
Did Orion write any bangers?
A few, but the songs were mainly sourced for him by Sun Records. He wrote a song called “Washing Machine,” so yeah, he was mainly a singer.
You know, it’s a more old-fashioned way of doing things. I always remember when I’m thinking about Orion that it was pre- internet. I’m not sure that Orion could have existed now, because he traveled from town-to-town-to-town on the strength of rumor and word-of-mouth. So it’s a story that caught fire. That’s really appealing now, thinking, “Wow, I wonder whether that could still work now.” I guess things do go viral or catch fire now, but it’s just much faster.
Even watching the film, I wondered if it was true or just a shared dream. There’s so little information about Orion on the internet—and we trust the internet so deeply—that it’s almost like watching another universe’s version of Elvis.
I made a film called The Great Hip Hop Hoax a few years ago, and for a few months afterwards I kept getting emails from people saying, “Are you real? Are you an actress? Is this Inception? Is this like Doc-ception?” No! The reason why I make documentaries is because real life is amazing. And why make fiction when you can discover a story you couldn’t write. It is implausible, but it’s about uncovering a story and it becomes more and more into focus as you learn more about the story. It’s like being an archeologist. I found this record and just thought, oh my goodness, what is his story? It was just so confusing because of the way he looks and his voice and not knowing anything about him. And the gold vinyl. It was all a mystery.
Both films are about people who disguise themselves as something they’re not comfortable with.
They’re definitely exploring the Faustian side of fame, and what happens when you get what you want. It just seems like such a crazy goal, the goal of fame. Orion wanted to be a good singer that was loved for his voice. The fame or whatever should be a secondary to that, but I think it felt like he needed to adapt who he was to get it.
Sun Records President Shelby Singleton said he would do “most anything” to promote a product. Would you?
Well... no! I feel like I’ve spent too long making the film. All my films are my babies in one way or the other. I was an artist before I ever made films and I always think that the way you put the films out into the world has to be suggested from the work. So we’re making masks, because that seems appropriate. Life’s too short to work with terrible people. That’s one of my rules. I’m too old for this shit!
The film is pretty balanced: but did you end up liking Orion or not?
I think I did, actually. For a while I wasn’t sure, but the more I kind of... what was interesting on the shoot last year was meeting people who really loved him, and it was like doing a Victorian séance, it was like he came into the room through their memories and collected love. But I can’t make a film that’s like, here’s this guy, he’s so great. All these films, I’m trying to make a portrait of someone that other people would recognize.
On one hand people talk about how he “made them feel like family,” and on the other, an ex-girlfriend reminisces about Orion’s briefcase of Polaroids of “Lucys,” or female genitalia...
We’re all flawed human beings so I tried to make sure that his flaws are visible. He wasn’t always realistic about what was gonna be good for his career, and he got distracted by many, many, women. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but what the hell, he could and he did. And I kind of can’t fault him for that! Isn’t that the rock star dream, all the Lucys in town?
I always think interviews, especially with musicians, are similar to therapy. So hearing Orion’s thoughts so long after the events feels like he’s getting things off his chest.
Yeah! When I’m interviewing people, I’m always looking for them to articulate something for the first time—capture the new memory, not the one they’ve trotted out 5000 times. So it was kind of interesting having this bag of audiotapes, bootleg interviews that had done the circuit. It’s been really hard to make a legal film out of bootleg material; we’ve had to track everyone down! And some of the quality of the stuff is this weird ghostly voice, especially his father.
Did it help to be such an outsider in the American South, being British?
My cameraman is from Tennessee and he said that I got access in a way that he wouldn’t have done as an American man. I really like interviewing people and I really like asking the dumb questions, the questions that you really want to know the answers to. I’m genuinely interested in human beings, and I’m always astonished at how open people are.
Spoiler alert: the film touches on whether or not he was actually related to Elvis, and offers clues...
It’s total speculation, and the reason why it’s presented that way is I like the idea that it’s just another layer to his story that he tried all these years to make it on his own, but what if? Because it sounds just like a story that Shelby Singleton made up, but all his friends believe it. Because I was like, no way, then I looked at the pictures and I was like, “Oh my God—he could be.” But I don’t want to know. It builds the myth.
Do you think Orion believed it?
It depends who you ask. I’m not sure: I’m genuinely not sure about that. A lot of children who are adopted do a lot of magical thinking. Who are my parents, where did I come from, where did I get my voice?
And finally, did you ever get up close and personal with any of his stage costumes?
Someone in Norway had a full outfit. So I’ve worn one of his real masks. We crowd-funded part of the budget, and we were doing quite a few events wearing masks, and it was horrible! There’s no way you’d want to wear that the whole time. It’s not a good feeling!
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, 4.17 at 6 PM at the Bow Tie Chelsea 7.
P&I Screening #1: Saturday, April 18, 11:00am (Regal Battery Park 11-3)
Public Screening #2: Saturday, April 18, 8:00pm (Regal Battery Park 11-3)
Public Screening #3: Tuesday, April 21, 3:00pm (Regal Battery Park 11-6)
Public Screening #4: Thursday, April 23, 7:30pm (Regal Battery Park 11-9)
Portrait of the writer. You can find Davo McConville on Twitter.