Interesting fact: Elvis had a twin brother who was stillborn. But what if he had lived? What if he had simply grown up in a different family, separated from his twin brother when they were infants because their family couldn’t afford to raise two children? What if both loved to sing and dance? What if both had been blessed with hair characterized by its amazing lift and a hip swing that could send girls into a mad frenzy?
What if, instead of one Elvis and 1 million impersonators, there had been two Elvises?
This is the concept that dominates the fictionalized world in Dustin Marcellino’s film “The Identical.” The movie begins in black and white, following newlyweds Helen and William Hemsley as they struggle to survive in the 1930s South. When the wife gives birth to twin boys, the couple realizes they cannot afford to raise both kids and, in a rather heart-wrenching scene, gives one to a childless minister (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Ashley Judd). From there, the boys’ (both played as adults by Blake Rayne) stories deviate. The baby who stays with his biological parents is named Drexel Hemsley. The minister’s child, Ryan Wade, is the film’s primary focus, and the story tracks him as he grows up in a middle-class, conservative, Christian family. Despite the differences in their circumstances, both boys grow up loving music and, low and behold, develop very similar sounds, styles and dance moves. One goes on to become the voice of rock ‘n’ roll. The other sets up a more normal life. But neither can quite escape the ghostly presence of the other.
The concept of this movie is simply bizarre. There are many popular movies that have attempted to rewrite history — including “Shakespeare in Love” and Disney’s “Pocahontas” — but this film script tries to restructure the fabric of reality by bringing to life an urban myth without actually acknowledging that it’s doing so. It’s kind of like fan fiction on screen. This is reflected in the script, which, despite the oddness of the story’s premise, feels very generically dramatic throughout much of the film. The biographical quality of the story, in that it depicts the brothers during their early and middle life, would be entirely standard if not for the possibility that the two brothers will finally meet and that something big will happen.
The characters themselves — the overbearing father; the understanding but submissive mother; and even the rebellious, comedic best friend (Seth Green) — simply aren’t developed enough to contribute in a particularly interesting way. Rather, they help construct the circumstances that keep the two talented boys apart and therefore ensure tension for the rest of the story.
In short, the fantastical, slightly absurd nature of this story doesn’t translate well across the screen. But if it were to be restructured for the stage, which is a much more accepting medium for offbeat, entertainment-related stories, it could have some potential. One of the perks of the film is the 20 original songs written by Jerry and Yochanan Marcellino, which pay tribute to the King more effectively than the story by adapting his stylistic evolution into new, original pieces. In the film, the performance of these songs by a former Elvis impersonator, Rayne, is a highlight. And if they were performed on stage, where the full impact of the “Elvis” experience can be felt live, the songs might even inspire a few more people to scream wildly. The simplicity of the story, especially with its themes of self-discovery, living up to your parents’ expectations and following your heart, also resonates well with a musical stage setting because it allows for the dramatic and exuberantly inspiring forms that most of Hollywood tends to shy away from.
“The Identical” is a strange and slightly uncomfortable film to watch. It’s not without merit, but the story never quite manages to balance the reality of its viewers with that of its fictional world. In its current form, it teeters too far towards Elvis conspiracy theories to actually be taken seriously.
“The Identical” is playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].