Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Dir. Jake Kasdan
Premiered December 21, 2007
2007 was a big year for me. On March 27, I started keeping a journal after being caught in a tornado. On May 13, I created an online persona called “Monty Park” in a failed attempt to force my high school’s film club to help me produce a mockumentary of the same name– a fortuitous choice, as I became quite popular in my senior year when the WGA strike in the fall and winter made my YouTube videos a major source of entertainment– they’re all gone now. The same strike coincided with the sudden rise of television as a critically respectable artform on par with film; it wasn’t just a good year for movies, and that new climate inspired me to want to be a television writer. Soon after, I became an Eagle Scout. On December 18, I turned 18, registered for the draft, and registered to vote. Three days later, I belatedly celebrated my birthday by going alone to what is now the ArcLight Pasadena, seeing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and leaving disappointed.
My biggest regret from 2007, aside from getting banned from Starbucks, waiting too long to ask Justine Tran to the winter formal, and other general acts of cowardice and self-absorption with regard to the opposite sex, is not seeing more movies in the theater. My all-time favorite movie came out that year and I didn’t see it. I only saw eight films, which is still a high number for me, and the last of which was this movie.
My memory of seeing it is quite clear. Most of the jokes from the trailer– the best of them– weren’t in the film; always frustrating occurrence, and one that had led me astray on a previous birthday. At first I thought it was too silly at first, and too sincere at the end. A decade on, however, in a better mood, with a much deeper knowledge of the history of popular music, and with a new and painful familiarity with the 2000s’ particular brand of awards bait, Walk Hard is fucking hilarious.
The story begins at a concert in the present-day, as Dewey (John C. Reilly) looks back on his entire life before coming onto the stage one last time. In 1946, ten-year-old Dewey accidentally cuts his musical virtuouso brother Nate in an old-fashioned machete fight, and despite his father’s bitter insistence that “the wrong kid died,” vows to live the live the life that Nate never could– even though the incident “tragically” robs him of his sense of smell. At fourteen (and already played by John C. Reilly), he’s run out of town when his doo-wop song “Take My Hand” is lambasted as the work of Satan. But he soon becomes a runaway success as his song “Walk Hard” becomes a #1 hit. Soon after, he gets to know almost every major figure in the history of popular music, experiments with every drug the screenwriter could think of, leaves his perpetually pregnant teen bride (Kristen Wiig) for sexpot country singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), and suffers one career hurdle after another.
Walk Hard couldn’t have come out at any other time, parodying as it does the trend of middlebrow musician biopics that reached their apex in the 2000s with Ray and Walk the Line. In a year that saw its share of affectionate genre satires, Walk Hard is strikingly unrelenting in its skewering of such films’ attempts to conform a real person’s life into a conventional three-act structure, often by cloyingly linking events in the artist’s life to their work; the way screenwriters kinda grossly exploit the artist’s personal struggles for maximum pathos; the way filmmakers try to score progressive points by ham-fistedly portraying the recent past as harshly as possible; and how they try to link everything into popular historical narratives of the 20th century with questionable relevance. Walk Hard knows the musician biopic game so well that it managed to parody movies that didn’t exist yet, such as Love & Mercy and Get On Up.
But that’s not even the half of it; Walk Hard is endlessly quotable, though it would be pointless to include every great line in this review, as it would be to name every mismatched actor who drops in to play someone famous. Although directed by Jake Kasdan, Walk Hard is an Apatow production, and it’s the only one that justifies Mr. Apatow’s obsession with celebrity cameos. It runs out of steam a little bit after Dewey experiences a Brian Wilson-esque mental breakdown, but only because the first half of the film was outrageously funny while the second half is only reliably so.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Real 1950s groupies definitely had pubes. The ones here did not. No, I’m not letting this go.
John C. Reilly has an absolutely lovely singing voice. In fact, the film’s original songs meet the Neil Cicierga/Flight of the Conchords standard of funny songs that are also genuinely good.
Please watch the original theatrical cut and not the “unrated” edition, which kills the pace of many of the best jokes.
How Did It Do?
Walk Hard got a pretty-good 74% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. It was also a box-office bomb, grossing just $20.6 million worldwide against a $35 million budget. And while I’m surprised by quite how badly it did, I get it. Walk Hard failed for the same reason Grindhouse failed: they are movies for movie nerds, people who go to the theater every week but are always outnumbered by the yokels who go maybe five times a year. I have been both of these, so no judgment; Walk Hard isn’t the type of movie that needs to be seen on the big screen for full effect, and I think was Sony was willing to take that loss; it didn’t cost very much, producer Judd Apatow had done extremely well for them that year, and in Hollywood, even corporate executives are generally people who like movies. So it’s hard to feel too bad about its financial disappointment.
It’s also hard to feel bad because the movie keeps on giving. In the decade since Walk Hard’s release, musician biopics have largely failed to evolve beyond the formula that it parodies. This is also why, Straight Outta Compton nonwithstanding, they are much harder for critics and prestige industry groups to take seriously. Hell, Get on Up, a James Brown biopic from 2014, used the same framing device as Walk Hard without a second thought, and got away with it three years ago, but now an generation of critics who were growing up in 2007 have begun writing and they find it impossible not to laugh. Imagine a western made after Blazing Saddles where someone earnestly says “head them off at the pass!” Now imagine 80% of westerns made after Blazing Saddles doing that. That’s what musician biopics are doing now, and it is why Walk Hard remains evergreen.
Next Time: 2007 in Review