Southern Circuit Rocks with Orion
Chances are you don’t know Jimmy Ellis, but you might know him by his masked alter-ego “Orion,” who for a time was billed as “The Star of the ‘80s” – and for sure you know who he sounded like when he performed: Elvis Presley, the King himself.
For one brief shining moment – actually, through years of struggle – it almost looked as if Jimmy Ellis/Orion would become the star he desperately wanted to be, but fate had other plans.
The rags-to-(almost)-riches show-biz saga of Ellis has been immortalized in Jeanie Finlay’s acclaimed documentary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (see review, Page 29).
The film, which won the Grand Jury prize from the Gibson Music Films/Music City Competition at the Nashville Film Festival and earned a Grand Jury prize nomination at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, will be screened Tuesday, Nov. 3 at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, with the filmmaker in attendance.
“I want (audiences) to feel like they’ve gotten to know a man that they may not have heard of before the film started and gotten to know his hopes, fears and dreams,” Finlay observes. “Orion could be any one of us making choices and deals for the promise of success. It’s also a film about identity and layers of who we present to the world. All of us wear masks, Orion’s was just more sparkly than most!” With the death of Presley in 1977, Ellis donned the mask and adopted the persona of Orion – inspired by Gail Brewer Giorgio’s best-selling novel – perpetuating the myth that Elvis had faked his own death and had returned in the guise of Orion. Fans, desperate to believe their idol was still alive, fueled the Orion mythos.
Yet Ellis, for all his gifts, found himself trapped in that mythos. With the mask, he was Orion – and maybe Elvis. Without it, he was considered an Elvis sound-alike or, worse, an Elvis impersonator. Jimmy Ellis may not have sold his soul to become a star, but he sold his identity. Orion was the star, he wasn’t.
“All of us make choices in our lives every day,” Finlay says. “Jimmy chose ultimately to follow his dream, but that dream was only available to him if he compromised his identity under the mask, which brought him both pleasure and pain. The music business is one of the toughest there is, and often talent alone is not enough.
“It’s hard to know whether he would have ever got the break he wanted, without the mask, because his voice sounded too similar to the King’s.”
Orion marks the third and final presentation of the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers’ fall 2015 schedule, following September’s screening of Ian Samuels’ Myrna the Monster and Other Short Films and last month’s Movement and Location, made by the husbandand-wife duo Alexis and Bodine Boling.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting the filmmakers,” says Reggie Helton, the Carolina Theatre’s director of development. “(I) love their passion, creative energy, and diverse backgrounds—Brooklyn, Hollywood, and England so far. There are so many ways to make a movie!” In the case of Finlay and Orion, it can start in the most unexpected place.
“My husband and I found an Orion record for one pound at a car boot sale 12 years ago in our hometown of Nottingham, UK,” Finlay recalls. “It had this intriguing masked man on the cover. I had to buy it. After taking it home and playing it, I thought ‘Who is this guy? He sounds exactly like Elvis, but it can’t be.’ There was very little online about him – just this one little article. It felt like this rollercoaster Nashville story, and the mask was just this sparkly cage. I never forgot about Orion’s story, and six years later I started pursuing it as a film.
“It’s been an amazing journey over six years uncovering all the facets to Orion’s story,” Finlay continues. “I’ve met some incredible people and visited some very interesting places, far from my home in the UK. I have been overwhelmed by the response from Orion’s friends and family. Most of them came to the special screening at the Nashville Film Festival—where we won the Grand Jury prize—and loved it.”
So successful has the Southern Circuit Tour been that a spring line-up of screenings has already been scheduled at the Carolina Theatre: Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s documentary Almost There (Feb. 16), Bill Siegel’s documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali (March 15), and Eugene Corr’s documentary Ghost Town in Havana (April 12). All the filmmakers are scheduled to attend.
“The Q&A sessions are the highlight of the event, and we will be moving the spring films to the intimacy of The Crown, our third-floor theater space,” according to Helton. !
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King will be screened 7 pm Tuesday, Nov. 3 at the Carolina Theatre (310 S. Greene St., Greensboro). Tickets are $7 (general admission) or $6 (students, senior citizens, military). There will also be a “meet-andgreet” with the filmmakers beginning at 5 pm at Scuppernong Books (304 S. Elm St., Greensboro). For advance tickets or more information, call 336.333.2605 or visit the official Carolina Theatre website: http://www.carolinatheatre.com/. The official website for Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is www.orionthemovie.com.