The website for The Identicalhas more endorsements from pastors than movie critics—this is not one of those evangelical pictures trying to hide its agenda. It’s produced by a Nashville-based company with roots in the born-again world and some legit music-biz credentials. That agenda acknowledged, the picture has two notable strong points: an urban-legend storyline that’s been crying out for a movie treatment and an unexpectedly engaging lead turn by a new performer.
The story springs from classic alternate-history stuff. We all know—I certainly hope we all know—that Elvis Presley had a twin brother who died at birth. What if the twin had actually survived and led a parallel existence to his famous sibling? The Identical isn’t about the Presleys by name; its fictional Elvis is called Drexel Hemsley, born to a hardscrabble cotton-pickin’ family in the Depression. The elder Hemsleys give away the infant twin to a traveling preacher (Ray Liotta) and wife (Ashley Judd), who raise the child as their own son. He’s stuck with the prosaic moniker Ryan Wade, and it’s his story we follow (Drexel’s rise to fame happens offscreen). For a while the movie reaches back to The Jazz Singer for dramatic focus, as Rev. Wade expects Ryan to follow his path to the pulpit. The boy’s got music in his blood, so there are many “But I don’t feel the callin’, Papa” scenes to get through. Ryan achieves his own musical success by becoming a Drexel Hemsley impersonator, which is a pretty decent plot twist. It’s certainly better than the cringeworthy “birth of rock” scenes in which Ryan leaps onstage at a ’50s juke joint and shows the happy-dancing black patrons what the new music is all about. (The faux-historical songs are by Jerry Marcellino—former producer for Michael Jackson and Diana Ross—and son Yochanan; Dustin Marcellino, Jerry’s grandson, directs.)
The engaging turn comes courtesy of Blake Rayne, who plays Ryan and Drexel. This strapping, slyly humorous fellow was working as an Elvis impersonator when tapped for the project, and he’s got an easy, non-actory appeal. Everybody else is overacting, so this is especially welcome. Rayne’s likability redeems at least some of this preposterous movie, which otherwise lurches from one improbable scene to the next, with the Christian messages coming thick and heavy toward the end. It may be preaching to the choir, but if your particular calling is to be a celebrity impersonator, The Identical is here to assure you that you are forgiven. Opens Fri., Sept. 5 at Meridian and other Theaters. Rated PG. 107 minutes.