Review: ‘Orion: The Man Who Would Be King’ is a fascinating biography with a tantalizing twist

Orion (Jimmy Ellis) from the album "Fresh" in Jeanie Finlay's movie, "Orion: The Man Who Would Be King."

Orion (Jimmy Ellis) from the album “Fresh” in Jeanie Finlay’s movie, “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.”

(Sun Records / Sundance Selects)

The saga of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis, whose velvet baritone sounded uncannily like Elvis Presley’s, is a strange but true heartbreaker. Ellis was somewhat more than a showbiz footnote but never a full-fledged star — at least not on his own terms, as Jeanie Finlay’s excellent documentary, “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King,” makes vividly clear.

Though the Alabama native wasn’t an impersonator, he found himself trapped in that kitschy category thanks to the pipes he was born with and the schemes of a Nashville executive. When Ellis met Shelby Singleton, who owned the resuscitated Sun Records and its vaults, the sound-alike quality of his voice had held back his career for several frustrating years. And then everything changed through the bizarre confluence of Presley’s death, an unpublished novel and Singleton’s shrewd gambit.

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By overdubbing Ellis’ uncredited vocals onto old Jerry Lee Lewis tracks, Singleton fed into grieving fans’ longing for new material by the King. And after reading a manuscript about a fictional Elvis-like character who fakes his death, Singleton cooked up what one of the film’s talking heads calls a “despicable gimmick”: He turned Ellis into Orion, a mysterious crooning heartthrob in a sequined mask. Designed to ignite the wish-fulfillment flame for the Presley faithful, Orion had an ardent following, but Ellis chafed under the charade.


Through dynamic use of archival footage and intimate new interviews with Ellis’ friends and family — all of them founts of down-home sincerity — Finlay unearths a fascinating biography filled with reversals, comebacks and false starts. She saves a tantalizing piece of the puzzle for late in the film. It’s a twist that makes the story all the more stirring, and shows why some masks are easier to remove than others.


“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.”

No MPAA rating.


Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood.