Reelin’ & Rockin’ – ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ is the (Fictional) Rock Biopic to End All Rock Biopics, As Well As This Column

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For a while there cinemas were being hammered with these tortured portraits of legendary musicians. The leaders of the pack were the Oscar-winning Ray and Walk the Line, though there were precursors such as Great Balls of Fire and La Bamba. But Ray and Walk the Line were formulaic in their attempts to turn a life story into a two-hour collection of greatest hits adapted for the screen. For a while there it looked like we had moved passed these types of movies. Over the past summer, however, we saw the releases of Jersey Boys and Get on Up, two more movies in the Ray/Walk the Line mold. Needless to say, I was shocked that these movies would follow that well-worn path because, after all, the genre was effectively killed by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a spoof that presented just how tired and generic these types of movies really were.

The musical biopic generally tries to tie the subject’s genius to some form of childhood drama, usually in an impoverished southern setting. Just because many great musicians grew up poor in the south doesn’t mean that every movie about them needs to feature these moments. But that’s where Walk Hard begins. A young Dewey and his older brother Nate are playing on the family farm. Their forms of play have an escalating danger to them which ends tragically when Dewey accidentally hacks his brother in half with machete. Dewey’s father, Pa (Raymond J. Barry), blames the young man for the death of his favorite son. Conversely, Ma Cox (Margo Martindale) is worried about the trauma her still-living son has experienced, a trauma so great that his rendered the young Dewey “smell-blind.” Between the guilt over his brother’s death and the unrelenting patriarchal anger, Dewey has to be twice as great to fulfil his destiny.

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At the tender age of 14, Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) performs a high school talent show, his gentle form of rock ‘n’ roll nearly inciting a riot. Having found his calling, the young Dewey and his 12-year-old love, Edith (Kristen Wiig), leave behind their hometown as Dewey seeks fame and fortune as a singer. Struggling to get by and feed his growing family, Dewey takes work in a juke joint when black folks dance erotically to the thumping rhythm. One evening Dewey is given a chance to sing and is discovered by some record executives. When his first record becomes a hit, Dewey finds himself on the path of superstardom. A fixture of popular music, Dewey Cox endures the early era of rock ‘n’ roll, the folk revival, the British Invasion, the psychedelic era, and right on through disco, often rubbing elbows with the greatest of the greats.

There are a so many things that Walk Hard gets right about music biopics. What really elevates this film into the realm of excellent spoof is the cinematography by Uta Briesewitz, which looks just like the films it’s parodying. The flashbacks take on the borderline sepia tone of lazy, forced nostalgia. And the visuals serve the film’s script, co-written by Judd Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, finds every cliché and brings them bubbling up to the surface. Among the great gags within the dialogue is the manner with which characters openly and repeatedly state what’s on their mind. This carries over to when Dewey has encounters with famous faces from rock history – their full names repeated so that audience knows who it is. Characters also vocally state their age throughout the movie, just so you can contextualize their changing lives.

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Walk Hard also a features an expansive cast of great comedic actors as well as a number of famous cameos. Dewey’s band is played by Tim Meadows of SNL fame, Chris Parnell of SNL, 30 Rock, and Archer fame, and Matt Besser, a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade. The love interests of Dewey Cox are played by Jenna Fischer and Kristen Wiig. And the late, great Harold Ramis has a small role as L’Chaim, the Jewish record executive who discovers Dewey. But Walk Hard wouldn’t work if not for John C. Reilly. Having been around for a while in a variety of different roles, John C. Reilly may be one of the most underappreciated actors of this generation. He’s an actor capable of injecting a dose of sympathetic humanity to his characters, like he did as Officer Jim Kurring in Magnolia, or he can play a straight-faced dope as he does with Dewey Cox.

Upon its release, Walk Hard was a massive flop. Along with MacGruber, the other great spoof of the past 10 years, it seems as if the well of spoof cinema had been poisoned by the likes of Friedberg and Seltzer. The lazy spoof, replacing anything resembling a joke with a dated pop culture reference, has left audiences scared of taking chances on unabashed silliness. While Walk Hard is certainly silly, it takes on the look of the genre its spoofing and its jokes are inherently tied to its characters and situations. But the film also has a certain reverence for rock ‘n’ roll history, even more so than the biopics which exercise nothing more than well-acted hagiography. Some of the biggest laughs in Walk Hard come from Dewey Cox taking on the personas of various rock ‘n’ roll legends – the Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson segments are amazing.

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However, there’s a certain bittersweet feeling that surrounds the legacy of Walk Hard. Judd Apatow has maintained his standing in comedy, producing, writing, and directing all sorts of comedy – some good, some bad. But Jake Kasdan has become a great disappointment for myself. Since Walk Hard, Kasdan has directed two forgettable comedies – Bad Teacher and Sex Tape – with Sex Tape being one of the most torturous cinematic experience of 2014 for myself. It wasn’t just painfully unfunny, it was visually abhorrent too. Even if Kasdan never finds that comedic magic again, he’ll at least have one bonafide comedy classic to his name.

There is also another bittersweet angle here. As you may or may not have noticed – I’m guessing not – I’ve been lacking on keeping up with the Reelin’ & Rockin’ column. As much as I’d like to say that Scarlett Johansson singing Tom Waits broke me, I just have been so busy that this is the one column that has fallen by the wayside. Having said that, I’m afraid it’s time to retire Reelin’ & Rockin’. This may be a temporary break or it may be permanent. At this point I’m just not sure. Of course, my other features will continue regularly. Thanks for rockin’ along with me. For now, I must walk. Hard.

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