Walk Hard Should Have Killed the Musical Biopic

It is remarkable that anyone wants to give the traditional biopic treatment to any musician following Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Released in the wake of the success of Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004) and James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005), Walk Hard, scripted by Kasdan and Judd Apatow, satirizes the genre so ferociously, accurately and hilariously that it should have ended the traditional biopic. Too bad nobody saw it; Walk Hard made $20.6 millions against its $35 million budget. The flopping of Walk Hard is a gross injustice because, truly, it’s an all-timer.

Walk Hard’s satire begins with the biopic structure; backstage at the “Lifetime Achievement Award” presentation ceremony, a frazzled stage manager (Nat Faxon) searches for Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly), legendary musician, only to be informed by Cox’s longtime drummer, Sam (Tim Meadows, always, always brilliant) that “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” And we’re off; flashback to 1946, when a young Dewey (Connor Rayburn) accidentally kills his brother Nate (Chip Hormess) in a terrible machete fighting accident, earning his father’s (Raymond J. Barry) eternal scorn, and setting him down a path to musical greatness.  Kasdan and Apatow recognize the patent ridiculousness of trying to shape a person’s entire life into the three act dramatic structure of mainstream filmmaking, and so they constantly deride the premise, not winking so much as rolling their eyes with Dewey announcing at his lowest point “This is a dark fucking period!”

Walk Hard tracks Dewey’s career from his first performance at his high school talent show in 1953 to his death in 2007, allowing the film to lift from a number of inspirations. Dewey goes through phases in which he emulates Elvis, Johnny, Cash, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson, to name a few, and in capturing those musicians recognizably shared traits, Kasdan and Apatow astutely point out the fundamental sameness of musical biopics. The hoary old tropes on display are legion, but a favorite for the writers are the silly way in which biopics portray the way an artist’s inspiration for writing an iconic song, as in this scene, in which Dewey conceives of his greatest his, the titular tune:

Walk Hard’s true target is the way in which musical biopics attempt to lionize their subjects. While films like Ray and Walk the Line may portray the “dark” periods of a musician’s career, for the sake of drama and “truth,” this is largely chalked up to the artist being a “troubled genius.” Walk Hard understands that the line between “troubled genius,” and “selfish asshole” is thin, or perhaps nonexistent. This is best exemplified by Dewey’s relationship with his first wife, Edith (Kristen Wiig). Kasdan and Apatow skewer the biopic’s penchant for villainizing artists’ first wives for committing the grievous sin of “not believing” in their husbands’ artistic pursuits, when the truth is that those husbands were on the road, ignoring their parental duties, and engaging in myriad acts of adultery. Wiig, showing that she was a heavy-hitter in one of her first film roles, is almost never shown without one the ever-expanding brood of Cox children in her arms, or without some schmutz on her face, damning the way that biopics damn women who have the poor sense to become unsexy “moms.” Edith doesn’t stand a chance once the woman who will be Dewey’s “true love”, the comically sexy yet comically virginal, Darlene (Jenna Fischer), comes along.

Walk Hard similarly points to the racism inherent to films that lovingly portray the advent of rock n’ roll. The popular narrative of rock n’ roll’s entry to the mainstream is that artists like Elvis and Roy Orbison were incredible talents who were open-minded enough to tackle a kind of music that was popular only in black communities, an untruth that has been embraced by white music fans. The film points to the, perhaps well-intended but also somewhat condescendingly racist way in which biopics about early white rock n’ roll stars will credit black musicians with creating the form but suggesting that the white central figure was the best at it, as in this scene in which Dewey gets his big break when he gets to sit in for an ailing band leader at a black club in which the clientele “dances erotically” (a jab at how biopics will celebrate the “exuberance” of black audiences by portraying them as out-of-control sexual beasts) :

Further, Dewey’s increasingly dangerous drug use is facilitated by the sole black member of his band, the aforementioned Sam, in a series of scenes which highlight Tim Meadow’ unique talent for playing a lovable bad influence:

Reilly is so perfectly cast as Dewey that it is hard to imagine a second choice for the part. Reilly began his career in film with largely dramatic roles that utilized is ability to add soul to characters who were mostly sweet, dimwitted rubes, and is able to utilize his great technical acting abilities, his ability to cry, indicate anger, etc., and push the indicators of emotion ever so slightly over the top into the realm of comedy. Couple with his great comic and dramatic chops are his real musical ability, previously shown in Chicago (2002), and the fact that Reilly has as much inherent likability as any actor ever to grace the screen.

It is outright disgraceful that Walk Hard was not a huge hit, much less a flop. Even if the premise of the film weren’t as interesting as it is, the cast list is insane, chock full of ringers. On top of leads Reilly, Fischer, and Wiig and the aforementioned Meadows, comedy fans will see a lot of familiar faces in Walk Hard’s ensemble: Matt Besser, Chris Parnell, David Krumholtz, Craig Robinson, Harold Ramis, Martin Starr, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Ed Helms, Jonah Hill, Simon Helberg, Jack McBrayer, character actress Margo Martindale, Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long all make appearances .It’s an embarrassment of riches and the cast would make the film worth viewing even if it were not a masterpiece. And it is that; a masterpiece. Kasdan and Apatow, set out to poke fun at overly serious works about geniuses and accidentally created a work of genius themselves. A forgotten work of genius, but genius nonetheless.

Walk Hard (2007) Columbia

Director: Jake Kasdan

Writer: Jake Kasdan, Judd Apatow

Producer: Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan, Clayton Townsend

Cinematographer: Uta Briesewitz

Editor: Tara Timpone

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Matt Besser, Raymond J. Barry, Margo Martindale

English/R/96 min.

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