Monthly Archives: November 2015

Jeanie Finlay on Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Over the last few years, British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay forged a reputation for making fabulous films about stories from the fringes of the music industry.  The Great Hip Hop Hoax told how a couple of Scottish lads got a record deal by posing as Californian hip hop artists, and Sound it Out profiled the last surviving vinyl shop in the northeast of England.

Finlay’s  latest film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, about to be broadcast on BBC’s Storyville, continues this tradition in spades. It’s an utterly engrossing, layered story, beautifully told. Here’s what I wrote about it for Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it had its world premiere in June:

As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in willful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity. 

JeanieFinlay_Director_landscape
Jeanie Finlay

I spoke with Jeanie on the telephone, just before she left to take the film on a tour of the American South:

How did you come to this story?

I discovered an Orion record at a car boot sale with my husband 12 years ago. And was just intrigued by this kooky masked man. We took it home and played it. It was confusing: what is this? Because it wasn’t Elvis songs but it sounded like Elvis and the mask was intriguing. And then we did some research and discovered Orion’s whole story. It was a total chance discovery. I wasn’t making films then; I was an artist. Cut forward six years and I’d made Teenland and Goth Cruise and I thought what am I going to make next? I’ll make Orion. But I couldn’t get anyone to fund it. So I got a bit of development money and I shot most of the film on that initial development.

I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you.  You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.”

It seems like such a great story. Why was it so difficult to get funded?

Part of it was timing. No one knew who I was. It is a guy who is not famous. The story takes quite a lot of explaining. It’s an easy story to dismiss as Americana. Some of the funders told me “We don’t fund Americana. This is Americana.” Also, six years ago, I was trying to make it pre Sugarman and pre 20 Feet From Stardom. At that time I did a panel for Sheffield Doc/Fest called “Just Don’t Call it a Music Doc”. Because I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you.  You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.” Obviously films like Amy, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Sugarman have changed that discussion. I was always convinced that it was a really great American tragedy.

What kind of response are you getting from audiences, and particularly from Elvis fans to the film?

It’s quite interesting trying to reach Elvis fans. We’ve been going through Elvis tribute artists because they have access to a whole community. But actually going to Elvis fans is tricky. Because they love Elvis, and they have their favourite Elvis Tribute Artists, but they don’t want anyone else. So they are really not interested in Orion. So we’ve been doing some targeted ads on Facebook, and we’ve had no end of abuse from Elvis fans who haven’t heard of Orion and think this is someone trying to pull a scam!

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Monday, 16 November at 10pm on BBC Four.

Orion, photo courtesy of Sun Records
© Sun Records
Advertisements

From Grierson to Gogglebox: Teaching the Factual Spectrum

I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.

Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.

I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.

grierson
John Grierson

In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:

We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.

After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.

As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.

the lift
Lift

While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…