Overview: This film explores the life of Jimmy Ellis, a man with a voice nearly indistinguishable from Elvis Presley’s, who gave up his very identity for a shot at making a living doing what he loved by donning a mask and performing under the name Orion. Sundance Selects; 2015; Not Rated; 86 minutes.
Strengths And Weaknesses: Ellis’ story is a rollercoaster of successes and failures, of exploitation in show business and the struggle of a small-town man chasing of far-off dreams. Ellis is a fascinating subject, one whose story surely deserves to be told well, and Orion does the tale justice. Mostly, that is. Documentarian Jeanie Finlay does a fine job with a twisty narrative. In the hands of a less confident filmmaker, Ellis’ journey would have likely been quite hard to keep up with. With The Man, the story is clear and concise and on a purely analytical level, all of Ellis’ choices do make sense and slot together nicely in the larger context of the story, but the film has issues consistently tapping into the story’s more emotional undertones.
Orion’s greatest flaw is one that unfortunately can’t be helped. Ellis died in 1998, so Finlay was obviously not able to interview him for the film. His perspective is terribly missed, and the film never quite figures out how to delve deeper into Ellis’ many quirks and complexities without the luxury of simply asking him for a firsthand account. The closest the films gets to understanding Ellis’ true motivations come from intimate interviews with those who were closest to him: old girlfriends, close friends, and his son, Jim Jr., whose poignant and genuine interviews stand out above the rest and deliver the finest, most deeply felt moments of the film.
The Tragedy Of Ellis: Still, it’s undeniable that something is missing from this documentary, and even after a film that feels a touch too long already, especially about halfway through when the story gets wrapped up in muddled legal issues and questions of money, this story still feels as if it has more to offer. Maybe it’s because Ellis himself had so much more to offer. “He really didn’t want to be Orion,” one of Ellis’ old coworkers says about halfway through the film. “He wanted to be Jimmy Ellis.” Had Ellis been born before Presley, he almost certainly would have been a star. But Elvis Presley is a tough act to follow, and Ellis’ greatest gift, his miraculous voice, was also a curse that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Overall: It’s not perfect, but with slick visuals, intelligent directorial choices, and a stranger-than-fiction premise, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is well worth a watch.