Jeanie Finlay is becoming the queen of music documentaries. She hasn’t always worked within the genre, but her real breakout in the U.S. came with 2011’s Sound It Out, which showcased a holdout in the near-extinction of vinyl retailers (and record shops in general). Last year, she followed with one of 2013’s best music films, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, about two Scottish rappers who got a major label deal by pretending to be American.
Now she’s finishing up another sure-to-be fascinating feature on another incredible subject. Titled ORION: The Man Who Would Be King, it’s one of those docs about an obscure music artist with a story so unbelievable you’ll be amazed you haven’t already heard it. The doc is now rounding out its four-year production with a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.
“It started when I bought a vinyl record at a car boot sale in Nottingham for a £1,” she tells Nonfics about the inception of the project. “It was on Sun Records, limited edition gold vinyl and had this crazy cover. I took it home and played it and couldn’t get my head round what I was listening to — it sounded just like lost Elvis back catalogue. That coupled with the curious masked cover made me want to find out more and peek underneath.”
Because he wore a mask on stage as well as on his record covers and indeed sounded exactly like Elvis and became popular through a contract with Sun Records in the late ’70s, Orion was believed by many to in fact be Elvis, still alive after having faked his death. Never mind that the logic behind such a career move is nonexistent, apparently the way Orion (real name: Jimmy Ellis) was marketed — including an early single released with a ‘?’ in place of the artist’s name — coupled with his stage identity being inspired by a novel about a famous rock legend who faked his death, helped to originate the whole “Elvis lives” conspiracy theory/myth that continues to be pondered 35 years later.
“What I uncovered,” Finlay says, “was a roller coaster story that takes place in Nashville in the wake of Elvis’s death, huckstering in the music industry and a quest for success that ends with Orion’s tragic murder 15 years ago. I knew immediately I wanted to make it into a film.”
In a way, ORION looks to be a good companion piece to The Great Hip Hop Hoax. Instead of artists pretending to be someone they’re not for a record deal, here it’s the record company perpetuating a pretense that this artist is someone he’s not. It’s a further address of the way image-making is key in the music business, and its setting should make it even more appealing to American audiences, especially if they’ve never heard of this once successful but currently forgotten country singer.
“It’s taken me from the UK all over the southern United States, tracking down the people that were there to witness Orion’s rise and tragic fall first hand,” Finlay says of her journey. “I’m excited as the finish is in sight.”
You can help her cross that finish line by contributing to the film, which has another month to reach its $50K goal. Or you can — and probably will — at least get excited about Finlay’s latest by reading more about it on the Indiegogo page and watching the following campaign video/trailer: