Did Elvis live on for years after his supposed death, performing as a masked man named Orion?

The answer is clearly no, but early on in Orion: The Man Who Would Be King filmmaker Jeanie Finlay shows that it was a believable enough idea in the years immediately after Elvis’s death that Nashville News reported in 1979: “There are many that believe that Elvis is still alive – if he is alive he wears a mask and goes by the name Orion.”

This documentary is the story of Jimmy Ellis, a man whose singing voice is eerily
indistinguishable from Elvis Presley. This gets him enough attention that in 1974, at the 3 starsage of 31, he makes the difficult decision to leave his small southern town and try to make it on his own in the music business. But the odds are against Jimmy from the start. Not only is it impossible to hear him without thinking it’s Elvis, he’s already much older than most teeny-bop crooners.

He gets a record deal and struggles to establish his own career. To show people he wasn’t trying to be Elvis, the record company had him record a song called, “I’m Not Trying to be Elvis”. It doesn’t work. After Presley’s death in 1977, Sun Records takes an interest in him, releasing two Elvis cover songs with a question mark in place of the artist’s name on the packaging. This fuels speculation about whether Elvis is actually still alive, and by then it’s clear whatever career Ellis has will be tied inextricably to Elvis.

To capitalize on the mystery, the record company has him start wearing a mask and going by the name Orion. Is he really Elvis in disguise? Some kind of cosmic reincarnation of the King? Ellis’s record company and management ride that mystery¬†as far as it will take them.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is fascinating as a character study of someone who wants to be famous. Jimmy Ellis is a person with a talent, but he doesn’t know how to translate that into the acclaim he craves. Early on, he strives to maintain his own identity, but how his story progresses and how compromises his artistic integrity is what takes this documentary from the specific to the universal.

As you watch Jimmy Ellis in the Orion phase of his career, you start to wonder where your own breaking point would be if you were in his position. It’s easy to think there would come a time when you would realize the reality of what you can actually accomplish doesn’t live up to the promise of the dream you had when you started. But sometimes even the compromised version of that dream may be better than no dream at all.

The movie is less than an hour and a half, but feels much longer. There are slow parts where the story lags, and it leaves you with the impression maybe there isn’t enough material here for a feature-length documentary. Tightened up, it could have been a much better short in about half the runtime.

But it’s a well-directed documentary, with a good variety of archival concert footage, archival interviews with Jimmy (and Orion), and modern day talking head interviews to give some perspective and context. It paints the portrait of a tragic hero–and the tragedy may not be in the failure of his career, but in his acceptance of that.

Title Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Director Jeanie Finlay
Writer Jeanie Finlay
Runtime 86 min
Starring Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Adams, Sharon Attaway Nettleton, Gail Brewer-Giorgio
Production Glimmer Films, BBC Storyville, Broadway, Nothingham, Creative England, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Met Film Production, Truth Department