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Movie review: 'The Identical'

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"The Identical' (PG) ** 1/2 (out of four)

Starring a singer who makes his living on the Elvis Presley impersonation circuit in Nashville, "The Identical" feels like the impersonation of an Elvis movie: Featuring knock-off Elvis-like material, it isn't as good as an Elvis movie (most of those movies arguably weren't that good to begin with), yet you can still admire the talent and ambition behind it.

The premise of "The Identical" is no doubt fascinating. Essentially, it's alternate take on the life of The King of Rock 'n' Roll, asking the "What if?" question of what would have become of Elvis Aaron Presley's stillborn baby brother, Jesse Garon Presley, had he lived.

"The Identical," however, isn't a musical biopic about Elvis, so we'll have to settle for the fictional Dexter Hemsley, one of a set of identical twin baby boys that his parents had to give up to survive through the Great Depression. Raised by a minister (Ray Liotta) and his wife (Ashley Judd) as Ryan Wade (Blake Rayne), the boy's destiny appears to be in the ministry, even though he struggles with the idea because he has a love and gift for music. Before long, Ryan discovers the music of Drexel Hemsley (also played by Rayne), a charismatic hit singer at the forefront of rock 'n' roll genre in the 1950s who looks like Ryan, sounds like Ryan and unbeknownst to Ryan, is the twin brother he never knew.

Inspired by Drexler's music, Ryan decides to pursue a career in music himself, putting the brothers on a collision course that veers into a territory that Ryan – who performs Drexler's music under the moniker "The Identical" – never could have imagined.

Of course, for a low-budget, faith-based film, "The Identical" probably couldn't afford the musical rights to The King's recordings, so they were forced to craft their own tunes. At a higher price, though, was the filmmakers' risk of turning off their intended audience. After all, an accurate representation of Elvis' life on film would have to include his battles with drug addiction and his decadent, rock 'n' roll lifestyle, which is not the sort of thing we're used to seeing in a Christian movie, much less a PG one.

Instead, the filmmakers created a story of a famous singer and the identical twin brother he never knew, and made them look and sound like Elvis, and live through some of events that helped define Elvis (like his time in the Army and his horrible beach movies), without actually portraying Elvis or using any of his songs.

But instead of getting "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog" or "Can't Help Falling in Love," we're handed a spate of familiar sounding tunes that at worst, could have been unreleased tracks on reels stacked in some recording engineer's basement, or at best, been forgotten B-sides. Despite his best efforts, Rayne's silky baritone vocals and songs' be-boppy arrangements never match the glory of The King's original tunes.

The biggest problem with "The Identical" is, like the music that trails miles behind Elvis' original material, the story or its characters don't have any edge. Of course, this is film intended for family audiences, so it feels hokey in comparison to recent films about The King's contemporaries, like "Jersey Boys" (about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) and "Get on Up" (about James Brown). Instead, "The Identical" feels more like an original Hallmark Channel movie than a wide, theatrical release trying to reign in Elvis' legions of fans.

The upside of "The Identical" is, while it's faith-based, secular crowds will still likely find the movie accessible because it doesn't feel preachy. There's a message of trying to find your true identity in "The Identical," and in the case of Ryan, it's whether to follow his adopted father's path to become a minister or embrace his true identity as a gifted musician; yet the message of having faith in God or one's self hardly feels like it's being forced upon you. True, two of the main characters in the film are a preacher and the preacher's wife, but there's no reason to think the film is any more or less religious than other films that feature members of the clergy and their spouses trying to convince others to stay true to the word. Remember "Footloose"?

It's only a shame "The Identical" couldn't have been more fancy-free.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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