Into the barren wasteland of late August and early September comes this week’s sole new wide movie release, and you’re forgiven for knowing nothing about it. It’s called The Identical, and it is kinda sorta weirdly about Elvis, except not! There’s a long tradition of this sort of thing — few pop culture figures have inspired more cinematic hypotheticals, dramatizations, and all-out fictions. Here are a few of the weirder ones.
This week’s entry into the bizarre Elvis-ish movie sweepstakes focuses (as several earlier works of Presley-esque fiction have) on his stillborn identical twin brother. First-time director Dustin Marcellino’s film isn’t technically about Elvis: it concerns Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley and his separated-at-birth twin Ryan Wade. But both are played by Blake Rayne, an Elvis impersonator and spitting image of the King, and the character of Wade is, coincidentally enough, a professional Hemsley impersonator. In other words, what if Elvis’ twin brother had lived, and then became an Elvis impersonator, and no one put two and two together? Based on The Identical’s reviews thus far, it’d result in a “syrupy Christian-themed melodrama” that’s “a folly largely unworthy of its hidden idol.”
The Identical, and much of its ilk, fall into the bizarre realm of filmed Elvis fan-fiction, but the newest addition to that particular canon can’t hold a candle to this utterly bizarre 1988 comedy/drama from writer/director Chris Columbus (two years away from Home Alone). Columbus concocts the tale of a rock-and-rolling high school kid who conspires, circa 1972, to kidnap Elvis in order to cheer up his Presley-loving Mom — and wouldn’t ya know it, Elvis ends up taking a shine to the whole darn family. It’s a movie “so bad in so many different and endearing ways that I’m damned if I don’t feel genuine affection for it,” Roger Ebert wrote, while noting that the bedside scenes between Presley and our hero’s little sister “are hard to watch with a straight face, especially if you’ve read Albert Goldman’s muckraking biography Elvis, with its revelations about the King’s taste in pubescent girls.”
Elvis Meets Nixon
One of the oddest stories from the King’s later years concerns his spontaneous 1970 trip to Washington, DC, which Presley — obsessed with acquiring badges from the full spectrum of law enforcement agencies — made primarily to get his hands on a badge from the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. To do so, he scribbled a note to President Nixon, offering up his services as an undercover agent; Nixon took a meeting with the King and got him the badge (seemingly unaware of what kind of substances were regularly working their way through Presley’s system). The peculiar encounter spawned this amusing 1997 Showtime original movie, with Shawshank Redemption’s Bob Gunton as Nixon and Rick Peters as Elvis; another dramatization of the event, directed by Cary Elwes, is currently in development.
Three years before the debut of The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Stiller, still a struggling young actor and would-be filmmaker, wrote and directed this 30-minute hodgepodge of Elvis-related comic vignettes. It’s a hit-and-miss affair, but a few of the segments (like the above, featuring an unreasonably young Jeremy Piven and John Cusack as a grill cook who fashions meat into “Elvis Patties”) are worth a peek.
Angels with Angles
Now, here’s a real oddity: this 2005 comedy stars Batman villain and renowned impressionist Frank Gorshin as the late George Burns, here seen as an angel attempting to reunite with his dear Gracie. Rodney Dangerfield co-stars as God, Gorshin’s Batman co-star Adam West plays “Alfred the Butler” (har har), and Elvis Presley is played by… Sylvester Stallone’s C-movie dwelling brother, Frank. You might be surprised to hear that it’s not very good!
Elvis’s middle name was Aaron (or Aron, depending on which source you go by), and that alternate moniker has fueled many a fanciful Presley tale. Take, for example, this 2009 straight-to-DVD comedy, with Jay Mohr as a private eye hired by a mysterious client to keep an eye on a tabloid reporter. The client? The elusive “Mr. Aaron” (Robert Patrick, aka the villainous morphing robot of Terminator 2), who is, in fact, the King in hiding — which gets more complicated when the tabloid reporter (sporting recent photos of the man in question) turns up dead.
Plenty of filmmakers have started with the premise that Elvis is still alive — but what about if he were reincarnated? That’s the notion behind this 2001 comedy, which stars writer/director Jerry Eeten as “Aaron Presley,” who fancies himself as the reincarnated King, thus providing no end of trouble for his skittish, pill-popping doctor roommate. (Yes, you read that right.)
Tony Scott’s 1993 film, from a screenplay by famed Elvis fan Quentin Tarantino (who even played an Elvis impersonator himself, on an episode of The Golden Girls), cooked up the novel notion of an Elvis who doesn’t need an excuse for still being alive, because he’s purely in our hero’s head. He doesn’t bear Elvis’s name; he’s credited merely as “Alter Ego,” turning up twice to advise Clarence (Christian Slater). We don’t even get a clear look at his face, so it’s almost impossible to tell that Val Kilmer (who previously played an Elvis-ish pop star in Top Secret!) is playing him. But between the flashy costume, the distinctive speaking voice, and the gold lamé suit, there’s no doubt who’s pushing young Clarence to go shoot Alabama’s pimp. And in yet another weird bit of circularity, Gary Oldman, who played that pimp, would re-team with Slater in the straight-to-video 2012 Tarantino rip-off Guns, Girls, and Gambling as… wait for it… an Elvis impersonator.
The spirit of Elvis hovers over the entirety of this brilliant 1989 Jim Jarmusch effort, which tells a trio of stories set in a Memphis hotel. But the physical manifestation of that spirit only turns up once, and the backstory there is, well, peculiar. According to Greil Marcus’ brilliant 2000 Clinton-and-Elvis book Double Trouble, the ghost of Elvis—“probably the least convincing impersonation of Elvis ever captured on film” — was played by one Steve Jones, whose wife, Paula Jones, famously sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. “That Jones’s suite was dismissed deprived us of the spectacle of the trial,” Marcus writes, “with one Elvis righteously defending the honor of his wife against the depredations of another Elvis — but for that we are all better off.”
Any look at Elvis-inspired cinematic oddities would have to end here, with Don Coscarelli’s 2002 adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novella, which proposes that the real Elvis never died at all; he switched places with an impersonator in the 1970s, and that impersonator was who died in 1977. The film catches up with Elvis (played, wonderfully, by Bruce Campbell) as a senior citizen, residing in a Texas retirement home, best buddies with a still-alive, black JFK (Ossie Davis), whom he joins to fight a reanimated Egyptian mummy. And as weirdo Elvis movie premises go, I can’t imagine anyone’s ever going to top that one — at least, until we finally get Bubba Nosferatu.