J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Orion: Who was that Masked Man?

Probably nobody was more responsible for the Elvis Presley death hoax brouhaha than Gail Brewer-Giorgio. She wrote the conspiracy book shrink-wrapped with a cassette tape of the King supposedly explaining how he pulled it off that you might remember from late television commercials. She also wrote an earlier novel about good old boy rock icon Orion Eckley Darnell, who faked his death at the height of his fame. It was intended to be a fantastical allegory, but the new boss of Sun Records used it as a business plan. Jimmy Ellis was the aspiring singer whose voice fit Orion’s mask. Ellis’s strange and sad career is chronicled in Jeanie Finlay’s Orion: the Man Who Would Be King (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Even during his teenaged years, people were struck by how much the late Jimmy Ellis sounded like Elvis Presley. That might sound like a blessing, but for a prospective vocalist hoping to establish his own identity and career, it was more of a curse. Nobody wanted to sign an Elvis sound-a-like, until Shelby Singleton, the new owner of Sun Records and its storied catalog came across Brewer-Giorgio’s novel, Orion.

Just like the protagonist so clearly inspired by Presley, Singleton had Ellis perform as “Orion Eckley Darnell.” Since he only looked Presley if you were squinting like a bat in a spotlight, Ellis was required to wear a Lone Ranger mask whenever appearing in public. They never really said he was Presley, but there was a whole lot of winking and nudging going on. It was bizarrely successful for a while, as far as Singleton was concerned. Yet, Ellis inevitably became frustrated with the misplaced adulation and lack of proper recognition.

Finlay makes viewers understand full well the sad irony that had there never been an Elvis Presley, Jimmy Ellis could have been huge. He was not some cheesy Roger Clinton southern fried freak show. Ellis always sang with feeling and could croon a ballad with the best of them. Like Presley, he was attuned to many forms of southern music, from rockabilly to gospel. There was just no getting around that Elvis voice of his.

Ellis’s story turns out to be even sadder than we expect, but Finlay’s treatment gives him the respect and perspective he deserves. She engages in a bit of speculation regarding the adopted Ellis’s birth parents, but it is convincing enough to makes you wonder (but not about Elvis Aron, mind you). There is just some really nice documentary-storytelling going on in Orion. Plus, if you dig Elvis, you will definitely groove to Ellis’s spooky dead-ringer recordings.

It would be nice and altogether fitting if we could start speculation Jimmy “Orion” Ellis faked his death to once again pursue his musical dreams with a clean slate, but the senseless criminal nature of his murder and that of his employee are simply not conducive to fun conspiracy theories. Frankly, they both deserved far better. At least Finlay’s documentary will foster an appreciation of his talent, under his own name, which is not nothing. Highly recommended for fans of Presley, Orion, and old school Sun Records, Orion: the Man Who Would Be King opens this Friday (12/4) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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