Elvis Feature

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King Review: The Illusion and Delusion of Hope

Monday, December 07, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Director: Jeanie Finlay
Writer: Jeanie Finlay
Featuring: Jimmy Ellis
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available on demand now.

Hope, the belief in potential, is part of what make people great. It makes you have faith in yourself to do something difficult, or special, or novel. It gives you the ability to bet on yourself, to think that, with a serving of good fortune, you will get somewhere in life. It, in turn, make you look on other people and see the possibility of goodness within them, and trust that they can do fascinating, worthwhile things with the time they have here. It is an aspirational inclination, and one that helps keep the wheels churning on the humanity bus.

But hope is not everything. It can't be, because its downside can get ugly in a hurry. It can create a blinding effect, erecting a mental block in the minds of those who cannot turn off the inclination. This is particularly true when someone who has followed through on their potential loses their hold on it, be it through the erosion of skills that accompanies aging, through a cynical and/or insecure throwing away of one's talents, or through death. That last one, nobody gets away from.

And so was the case for Elvis Presley, who combined the latter two items of the preceding list to die at the age of 42 on August 16, 1977, of a heart attack brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse. His was a life that showed fans it was possible to max out their potential and gain love, fame, power, and probably even the elusive brand of immortality that comes with synthesizing into being a new art form. But the man hit a Las Vegas-sized wall and it all ended ignominiously. It was over. It was time to find another figure for the adoring masses to attach their hopes and dreams to.

However, in its depressing clockwork fashion, the entertainment industry, nor many of Presley's fans, did not want to let go. It was easy and comforting to keep the dream alive, even if the ambulatory pair of bloated sideburns was not.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King tells the story about the ugliness of that inability to let go of the hope people assigned to Elvis, by making a sideshow freak/cash-in out of a talented – if not uniquely so, given his uncanny vocal similarities to the King – singer named Jimmy Ellis. He traveled the country for years after Presley's death while wearing a Zorro-style mask to give the appearance that this “tall drink of water,” as at least two people call him to documentarian Jeanie Finlay's camera, was the man himself, in some sort of resurrection/faked death conspiracy.

People who knew Ellis in the days before, during, after, during again, and after again – he gave up the mantle for a time in the mid-1980s – his time as the masked myth detail his talents, his struggles with women, his desire to be his own man. However, his voice would not let that happen, even if he had never gone along with the marketing scheme that made him a bizarre piece of pop Americana. To an untrained ear, Ellis was Presley's clone, the type of talent who could have been transformational if he had been lucky enough to have been born 15 years earlier. Instead, he was perhaps always destined to be a novelty act, a niche performer who halfway lucked out financially (for a time) thanks to the soul-crushing deal he made with the suits at his record label.

Archival footage of Ellis's faux-Elvis career plays over most of the interviews, with some tinny recordings of Ellis's own thoughts on his cult status. The art vs. commerce debate happens subtly, and it implies Ellis probably needed commerce more than art. It's a handsome package, and it obviously generated hundreds of words about hope at the outset of this review, but Orion is a standard piece of documentary filmmaking that errs on the side of letting the interview subjects color the viewers' understanding of the person at its center. People disagree about what made Ellis tick, of course, and that is helpful as a way of showing how one can mean different things to different people.

Thematically, all that would have still made for a solid movie. But Orion falters by displaying hardly any investigative pushback against a crackpot theory about Ellis's paternity, letting the hope of the interviewees and fans take over. If the theory is correct, it would mean Ellis was no fraud, but a true heir. It's a “print the legend” piece of sensationalism the rest of the film lacks and does not need, particularly after showing numerous instances of journalists at the time debunking the sham that Orion the singer was not the reanimated Elvis. It is keeping with the documentary's thesis to present this hopeful fantasy, but it comes off as irresponsible and opportunistic enabling of unhealthy thoughts and behavior.

Orion remains thoughtful – and borderline revelatory about human nature – despite its flaws, and it nimbly explores its subject for most of its runtime. It could stand to add a few extra minutes to tamp down some delusions, or at least cast a bit of doubt on them, but maybe it would be a mistake to take that faith out of it.

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