“The drawback was they had one Elvis,” an ex-girlfriend of Jimmy Ellis deadpans in Jeanie Finlay’s tragicomic doc Orion: The Man Who Would Be King. Ellis, an Alabama-born singer whose voice shared much of Elvis Presley’s timbre and husky power, had tried for years to hit the big time, touring and putting out records in the shadow of the King. His soul-baring 1978 single “I’m Not Trying to Be Like Elvis” sounds swell, but it’s also a lie. Its swooning baritone melodrama, its stilted spoken-word passage, the way its soul, country, and rock sounds melt into a greasy whole, peanut-butter-banana-sandwich style: Dude was giving his all to being like the recently deceased Presley — and almost pulling it off. A friend, interviewed in the film, recalls Ellis’s rationale: “Elvis made it, and he sounded like Elvis — ‘Why can’t I?’ ”
Finlay finds the heartsick integrity in Ellis’s life as one Elvis too many. But it gets strange and propulsive after Elvis’s death, when Shelby Singleton, the pop-vulgarian then-owner of what remained of Sun Records, signed Ellis to a contract that might have been dreamed up by a satirist. Inspired by Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s novel Orion, about an Elvis-like singer who fakes his own death, Singleton got Ellis to slap on a spangled mask and perform as a hunk of burning mystery. As Orion, he released a torrent of Sun albums, hitting all the gospel, country, and pop stations of the Elvis cross. The most devoted of fans bought in, some finding excuses to believe he actually was the real King, and “Orion” toured small theaters for years, contractually obligated to hide his face and name.
Finlay tells this story with the usual doc techniques. The interviews are marvelous, especially the ones with Ellis’s exes, who attest not just to his weakness for groupies but to his collection of trophies. One woman describes the suitcase he lugged, stuffed with photos of what she calls women’s “lucys.” “I see enough of those at work,” she told him when he tried to show off his collection — her job was in a gynecologist’s office. (Nobody points out that even that is somewhat imitative: Elvis himself shot and collected his own videotapes of teen girls wrestling in their underpants.) Ellis, who died in 1998, speaks for himself in abashed interview clips. He loved singing and his not-quite-fame, but he yearned to be known for who he was. His music powers the film, and it’s well-sung and agreeable Elvis apocrypha. The songs aren’t strong, but by the Seventies Elvis’s often weren’t either. The most painful of the film’s many ironies: The spot where Elvis stood at Sun Studio is still a site for pilgrims; the studio where Ellis sang is now part of a merch warehouse.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Written and directed by Jeanie Finlay
Opens December 4, IFC Center