[5 September 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A professional Elvis impersonator teams up with a Pro-Israel propaganda coalition. Together with a wannabe songwriter and his wannabe director son, they create an alternate reality where rock ‘n’ roll was “created” by someone named Drexel Hemsley, the once and could be King. And just like the legitimate legend, this swivel hipped singer has a twin brother, except this one didn’t die at birth.
Instead, he grew up to be a problematic preacher’s son who doesn’t want to work for God. No, he just wants to hang out in juke joints and indulge in “race music”. Toss in a ton of bland biopic clichés, a collection of indescribable narrative touches, and more manipulation than a chiropractor’s office and you’ve got The Identical, undoubtedly one of the best worst movies ever made.
Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will sense the stink of Daddy-O all over this attempt at inspiration. Everyone else will just be flabbergasted.
Our convoluted tale begins in the best of all possible times: the Great Depression. William (Brian Geraghty) and Helen Hemsley (Amanda Crew) have just gotten married, after also getting knocked up, and it’s not long before Mom gives birth to a pair of strapping boys. Of course, this being the height of Herbert Hoover’s financial failure, our couple can’t care for both boys. That night, William goes to a tent revival and is moved by the sermon of Rev. Reece Wade (Ray Liotta). Seems his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) can’t stop miscarrying, and they are praying for a biological miracle.
The Hemsley’s decide to give one of their sons over “to God”, and within moments, we learn that the other child grows up to be a quasi-Elvis figure named Drexel (Blake Ryan) whose superstardom is matched only by his poor choices in fashion. The Wades’ kid? Well, the Pastor wants him to be a preacher. He believes he has “The Calling”. But Ryan Wade (Ryan as well) wants to rock.
So, along with his best buddy Dino (Seth Green), he travels across state lines and sneaks into honkytonks, all so that he can hear some of that amazing “devil” music. He even tries his hand at singing a few of Drexel’s tunes.
After a stint in the Army and an unproductive bout of Bible college, Ryan becomes a mechanic, working for the pro-Israel garage owner Avi Hirshberg (Joe Pantoliano). He also marries a former sweetheart (Erin Cottrell). They encourage him to participate in a Drexel Hemsley look-alike contest, which he wins with ease.
Soon, Ryan is renamed “The Identical”, and tours around the country covering Drexel’s music. Naturally, after a while, he wants to incorporate his own songs into the show, but prickly promoter Tony Nash (Waylon Payne) won’t let him. A tragedy turns Ryan’s life upside down, and he soon learns his lineage. Cue shoulder shrugs and/or rolling of the eyes.
You know you’re in trouble right from the start, right from the moment young Ryan decides to “sing” the Bible verse his father forced him to recite in church. Like a leftover reject from an X Factor audition, our child actor launches into a lip sync so confounded, so overflowing with scat and elongated vocal runs, that you wonder if you stumbled into a Tyler Perry production.
This is The Identical‘s idea of inspirational, taking a moment meaning absolutely nothing and giving it an overdone sonic polish. Throughout this amazingly awful film, proto-‘50s hits are hung out to dry like dirty linen, each one providing enough poptone prescience that it threatens the very fabric of space and time.
And it just keeps getting worse. Director Dustin Marcellino thinks he understands the needs of a fictional musical biopic, but time and time again he accents the action with his father’s failed melodies.
One of the best examples of this occurs during a trip to the movies. Ryan and his gal pal have gone to check out Drexel’s latest beach movie a go-go. The song he sings is supposedly about surfing, but from the minor key changes and lame lyrical contrivances, it might as well be about a fish kill. There’s instances where the backing is enhanced with synthesizer and modern techniques—and all the action is set before 1970. Even the make-up is marginalized, Liotta forced to go white haired and haggard while Judd looks the same as she did when the movie starts.
But it’s Ryan who’s the major league find, here. His performance is so wonderfully wooden, so obviously a Boy from Tupelo hambone copycat forced into trying his hand at “acting”, that he’s a mere chromosome away from Arch Hall, Jr. territory. Indeed, he’s Tony Travis without the “Shut up Iris!” or Dick Contino without the high water pants. He’s perfect and pathetic, a butt-wiggling joke who doesn’t realize he’s missing a punchline.
While Liotta literally chews the scenery and Judd sits back and smirks, Ryan is forced to do all the heavy lifting, and it shows. There are moments when he offers nothing less than a dead-on Elvis murmur, so close to the King that you can’t wait to hear him stutter, “Thank you… thank you very much.” And that’s about it.
By the end, with plane crashes, heart attacks, and secret letters adding to the maudlin manipulation, The Identical becomes a work of staggering, subhuman genius. If not for its already established dogma, directly linked to both Christianity and Judaism (the film was made by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America), religions would be built up around it. Just the idea of taking Elvis’ stillborn brother and turning him into an allegory for following God’s plan just seems like something a crackpot belief system could be founded on.
Someday, The Identical will take its rightful place alongside Troll 2, The Room, and Tiptoes as one of the most joyfully awful motion picture experiences of all time. Until then, we have to sit back and wait for something like Rifftrax to discover its majesty and sets its sights on mocking it. It goes without saying that The Identical deserves it. It deserves it in mindbending, who thought of this shit surreality.