Greetings again from the darkness. “Believe it or not”. That’s the catchphrase that Ripley’s used for its books, TV shows and museums, and it could just as easily describe this latest from award-winning documentarian Jeanie Finlay (The Great Hip Hop Hoax, 2013). When Elvis Presley died in 1977, legions of his emotionally distraught fans refused to believe he had truly left the building forever. This is the crazy story of how one music industry huckster cashed in on the opportunity by taking advantage of talented nice guy who just wanted to sing.
If you can play golf like (pre-scandal) Tiger Woods or throw a fastball like Nolan Ryan, then you have a chance to create a name for yourself. However, if you sing like Elvis (and even favor him physically), your music options are mostly relegated to being a sideshow act as an impersonator. That option was twisted a bit in 1979 by music producer Shelby Singleton, who had purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips and relocated it to Nashville. Singleton contracted with Jimmy Ellis, a nice young man from rural Alabama whose singing voice was eerily similar to that of Elvis. But rather than impersonate Elvis, Ellis donned a bedazzled eye mask and assumed the public stage name of Orion – the title and character of Gail Brewer-Giorgo’s novel that explored what might have happened if Elvis had faked his own death to escape the claws of celebrity. Orion became a fantasy experience for those Elvis fans who wanted to believe their King was still alive.
Ms. Finlay’s film exposes yet another example of how cruel the music industry can be. Talent is no guarantee of success. Mr. Ellis definitely had talent, but his ambition and trusting nature allowed him to be exploited (along with Ms. Brewer-Giorgo) by Singleton, who paid him no royalties despite a hand full of charting singles, and some albums that found a market. To her credit, the filmmaker doesn’t dwell on the ugliness, instead using archival audio interview from Ellis (and plenty of his songs) and numerous talking head interviews from his son and those who were associated with the time period, to create a biography of a man who just wanted to sing and live a good life. Ellis may not have been The King, but he was the kind of guy it seems we would all like to call a friend … and listen to him sing as often as possible.