“I just like the idea of delving into the glitter in some way,” says Jeanie Finlay, not long after the premiere of her latest “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” at the Tribeca Film Festival this past week.
Gifted with finding the most fascinating of stories in the most obscure of places, particularly within the world of music such as the record store tribute “Sound It Out” and the crazy “Great Hip Hop Hoax,” Finlay once again finds plenty of glitter and even more underneath in “Orion,” the story of Jimmy Ellis, an Alabaman with a honeysoaked voice whose dream of entering the recording industry was deferred by his adoptive parents who guided him towards a career in showing Tennessee Walking Horses. While Ellis eventually tried to make it in Hollywood, he ultimately took a more unusual path at stardom due to his uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to Elvis Presley, inheriting the King’s throne in 1977 after Presley’s death when Sun Records attempted to pass Ellis off as the Hounddog reincarnated as a masked crooner named Orion.
Although Ellis finally got the attention he craved, he didn’t receive the recognition, contractually obligated to wear the mask in public at all times with his staff docked $25 every time they mistakenly called him Jimmy. Through interviews with the people who knew him best as well as those who were in on the act, “Orion” tracks how success ultimately became a prison for the singer, who enjoyed all its spoils for a brief moment in time, but could never really be himself after. Yet even if Ellis wasn’t a pawn in such a strange gimmick, Finlay finds a fascinating one-of-a-kind character who divorced and remarried two separate women and spent much of his life reinventing himself for what the times called for.
After the premiere of “Orion,” one of the Moveable Fest’s favorite documentarians spoke about the six years spent off and on crisscrossing the South to tell Ellis’ story, dealing with a more realistic rock ’n’ roll tale and testing her limits as a filmmaker.
Since you’re a British filmmaker, when you were going out to financiers with this, was there much resonance outside the US?
It was weird actually. It was one of those films that I’ve really taken a long time to make. I actually started making “Orion” before “Sound It Out” and then found it hard to get anywhere with it. To get out to the States when you’re based in the UK is expensive, so I started trying to pitch it and managed to do a development trip six years ago. We went out to New York, Nashville and Alabama did some of the main interviews that you see in the film and then we just couldn’t raise any money.
Basically, we were only able to raise financing once I had shot about 18 hours and cut 25 minutes together, so I could say, “It’s gonna look like this” and “These are the people you’ll meet.” We did like five scenes and then they all came in. The people at BBC Storyville were fans of my last two films, so they understand my filmmaking and knew that I’m interested in people that are not famous. That was the hard sell. Oh, he’s not big. Why should he have a film? But his story is amazing – every man’s story of are your dreams toxic? And what happens if you live in the shadow of such a huge icon?
If you were filming over a number of years, what was it like to put a film together that way?
In some ways it’s frustrating because technology changed between while we were making the films and [some interviews] don’t look the same as others, but I’m a firm believer in your film being a representation of the moment you were in at that time. Some of the people that we filmed have now died, so it meant we have these really amazing interviews of people that really could have never been repeated. But it just felt like this strange, relentless train, carrying on to get to the finish line. I just always believed in it. There’s a great documentary maker called Peter Wintonick, who died last year, and he said that “Making documentaries is like falling in love. When you hear the call of the music, you have to just go for it.”
Were you surprised by some of the places this took you?
Absolutely. The film came about because I bought a record at a yard sale and wanted to know more about a man under the mask, so of course when I saw him, I [thought],”Oh, it’s this fun, catchy story.” But then it was just so much sadder than I ever imagined.
Did that make it difficult for people to talk to you about Jim?
Yeah, it was really tough at first. Then a few key people – Nick Scott, who was his guitarist and Steve Kelly, who was his friend, [agreed to be interviewed] and one came aboard after another. I’m trying to be a good person about making the films – you’ve got to have integrity and think about what’s in the story, so people will recognize the people they see on screen. That is what you have to do. I didn’t want to make a happier movie, but I wanted to show Orion as a flawed man and have empathy for his flaws because we’re all flawed. I just want to feel proximity to him.
Was doing something biographical something different for you?
Yeah, definitely because we’ll say there’s the whole, so what don’t you tell? What do we tell? There were loads of things from his life that we didn’t tell because the film would be 10 hours long, so that was tricky. It was really great working with the BBC because they had a hand in “Searching for Sugar Man,” films like that and they’re just like, “We need to think about the stepping stones for the story and how do you keep the story moving on.”
I worked with the same commissioner that I worked with on “The Great Hip Hop Hoax.” She’s like, “It’s always about turning the screw and moving the story forward, even if it’s just a little bit,” so you’ve got to learn new things. I was mentored by Marshall Curry and his thing is every few minutes you should be saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that” or “That’s interesting,” So hopefully, it feels like it’s a runaway train.
The thing I’ve noticed about your films about music is that they never shy away from the commercial burdens placed on art. Is that actually something that draws you into a project?
I don’t know. With “Hip Hop Hoax” and “Orion,” as soon I heard about them I knew I was going to make a film. It just felt right. But sometimes it’s also thinking about what I do as a filmmaker or people I know who are musicians and … it’s like what are your limits? Making films is also a selfish act. It’s about learning about yourself as well. [During “Sound It Out,”] I’m not a male record collector, but it made me think about being a woman. [laughs] It made me think about my genuine identity and where I grew up in England. That’s such a personal film. It’s about my home. It’s about men there. Essentially with all of these films, I’m interested in portraiture. It’s about how to make a portrait that you can connect with people that are not famous, that are on the fringes of fame.
So what did you learn about yourself on “Orion”?
Because there there’s been such a struggle to get financial commitments, there were suggestions from some financiers that I’d call very commercial names [for interviews]. So you think about your limits. I had a meeting with the sales agent and the film was finished, it’s done. And they’re like, “Yeah, have you seen “Searching for Sugar Man”? And it’s not a big touchstone for me, but it’s the music film that’s made the most money, so this person is like, “Yeah, you should recut your film to be like that because that made a lot of money.” And it’s just like, “Oh, come on, can’t something just be it’s own”? I like films to find their own form and you have to give them the freedom to find that. There were also things like, “Will I change the name of it to be more commercial?” “Do we make it look more catchy?” I’ve got boundaries about that.
I remember when we spoke about the film before, you said you were granted access through Shana Singleton, the daughter of Shelby Singleton, the head of Sun Records at the time of Orion, but I’m not sure I saw her in the film. Did you talk to her?
No, that’s not right. She’s in the film at the end and says, “I’m talented. He’s talented. She’s talented.” We did quite a long interview with Shana and she’s fabulous, but it was really hard in this film because in a way the story is the star, so it was always like what’s serving the story. Sometimes we’d just hear from some people for a little bit. Some records were really helpful and open and we cleared an enormous amount of music from Sun Records [Orion’s record label]. And if some of that music now comes back out to the world, that would be really good.
What was the premiere like for you?
Making films is really discombobulating. It’s a really strange experience. I don’t think I am unusual and a lot of documentary makers are nerdy and shy and want to be behind the camera, [so the premiere is] like turning yourself inside out. It’s really weird. When you have a baby, everyone always says that that’s when the real world starts and that’s like making films. You think you’re getting to the end and it’s just the beginning. That’s just the pregnancy.