Jeanie Finlay’s documentary work fuses pop-culture curiosity with a considered look at identity and myth-making. Her newest film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King follows on the heels of two feature docs also set in the music industry — The Great Hip-Hop Hoax and Sound it Out. One tells the story of rappers from Dundee who convinced the world they were American — the latter of a small, fading record shop in the economically depressed town of Stockton-on-Tees. It’d be easy to say these films are variations on a theme, but they are also intimate and multi-layered — defying any easy categorisation.
Orion is a star-spangled parable of aspiration and exploitation within the Nashville music biz. Filmed over six years, it reconstructs the story of singer Jimmy Ellis — a small-town Alabama boy gifted with an uncannily similar voice to Elvis Presley. In ’77, after The King’s unexpected death, Jimmy finally was able to corner the market. With the encouragement of Sun Records’ Shelby Singleton, he donned a mask and was reborn as Orion — a sparkly ‘reincarnation’ of Elvis himself. He could never publicly remove the mask or reveal his identity, and the enigma started a media craze. Finlay privileges a first-person versions of events, interspersing a mosaic of interviews with archival footage of glitzy performances. It’s a compelling, increasingly bizarre tale, with a whiff of Robert Altman’s Nashville and dimensions of classical tragedy. In anticipation of Orion’s US release, I had a chat with Jeanie about her newest film:
Tell me a little bit about getting Orion made.
It was a bit of an uphill struggle. And it wasn’t like I was making a film about someone famous, with access. It was a dead, unknown singer. It was about making it convincing for people to finance it. We crowd-funded a portion of it in order to convince the financiers that there was a value in it. But I shot 80 hours before we had any funding.
I was going to ask you about the filmmaking process —- it was such a twisty, unpredictable story. What came as the biggest surprise to you as you went along?
I guess the main thing was how dark it went — the details of how little money he made, and how many different attempts he made at kickstarting a career […] it was really hard-going. And there are always frustrations. I’ve learned so much about interviewing people. It’s like a muscle — the more you use it the better you are at doing those things. You can’t have any regrets, you’ve just got to move on to the next thing. You put it on the shelf and make the next film. Learn as much you can. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
I was curious about the brief interview with Shana, the daughter of Shelby Singleton (the president of Sun Records). She says, ‘It’s great that you sing and you write. So does everyone else. This is Nashville.’ If there’s anything in your film that really reminds me of Altman’s Nashville, it’s her saying that and capturing the ruthlessness of the town.
Yeah, she’s great. There’s a lot of people in the film where I wished we could have more time with them. If there’d been more time, I’d have talked about the fact that she would go to the Bluebird cafe with her dad when she was 6 years old, and he would be like, “next! next!” and throwing promos in the bin.
Something else I wish I could have put into the film - it was this sense that while we were filming, Nashville was just kind of a tragedy waiting to happen. I remember having a cigarette break, we’d been filming an Orion tribute artist. There was this whole side thing where I followed Orion’s original band around for a week. But everyone in the band were very skilled musicians, and when they were sound-checking a guy got up from behind the bar and did an amazing song. Then the other bartender did another great song. And I stood out smoking in the snow, surrounded by bars, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. The streets of Nashville are lined with broken dreams of people trying to make it.’
We’d been out filming one day and this homeless guy came over and said ‘hold my bag while I go get a beer’. So we did, and in his bag was a big battery-operated keyboard. He got it out and played for us, and was amazingly talented. So he’d been a musician who’d come to Nashville — and ended up homeless. It was like, ‘Even the homeless people in Nashville are talented!’ So Shana kinda summed it up.
Both The Great Hip-Hop Hoax and Orion feature people who hide their identities to get ahead in the music business - how much of that was an intentional thematic thread for you?
Because I found Orion first and then Hip-Hop Hoax, they seemed like sibling projects that were mining different subject areas. They’re about things I’m very interested in - authenticity, layers, identity. How do you make who you are, through the clothes you wear, the things you say? They're all sort of portraits in a different way, but carried by a story. Sound it Out and Panto are very much portraits of a place or atmosphere. Whereas Orion and Hip-Hop Hoax were more narrative-driven. And the reason I picked those people was so that they could tell a wider story.
I guess everyone in the entertainment industry does have to present a particular identity. These guys just took it to the extreme.
Yeah. Everyone wears a mask, it’s just Jimmy’s was sparkly.