In recent years the template for the big Hollywood musical biopic has been perfected and written in stone. Take a troubled childhood, throw in a tragedy involving a younger sibling, some drug use, a tumultuous romance, lightening strikes of musical inspiration and you have—take your pick—Walk the Line or Ray, two successful biographies that cleaned up at the box office.
Walk Hard, a new outrageous comedy from the team that busted guts with Knocked Up and Superbad, uses all the usual clichés and more to present the story of the amazingly resilient pop star Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly). The film opens, as biopics so often do at the end of the singer’s career, with an elderly Cox about to take the stage for the first time in years. As Cox stands in a darkened hallway deep in thought a stage manager tries to get him on the stage. “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays,” explains his longtime drummer played by SNLer Tim Meadows, and the movie takes off, amplifying and poking fun at all the usual clichés of the genre.
Walk Hard is ridiculous, but ridiculously funny. Like This is Spinal Tap it takes elements from rock ‘n’ roll legend and twists them until they become almost unrecognizable. Screenwriters Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan looked to Brian Wilson for the drug addled “musical masterpiece” scenes, while the child-bride story is lifted whole from Jerry Lee Lewis’ life and they’ve even thrown bits and pieces of Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Elvis. It’s a musical gumbo that equals the life and unruly times of Dewey Cox.
No matter how silly the movie gets—and it gets very silly—John C. Reilly, who’s built like Johnny Cash, but sounds like Roy Orbison, for the most part plays it straight. His earnest take on Dewey is hilarious, particularly when the 42-year-old actor is playing the 14-year-old Dewey. Look for fun supporting work from White Stripes singer Jack White as Elvis, Harold Ramis as the record company head and Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman as John, Paul, George and Ringo and cameos from Lyle Lovett, Jewel, Ghostface Killah and Jackson Browne.
Unlike Ray and Walk the Line Walk Hard doesn’t have a back catalogue of tried and true hits to fill out the soundtrack. Not to worry. Apatow and company have done a great job of coming up with convincing and catchy “hits” for Dewey to sing. The original songs from the title track to Dewey’s others chart toppers, like Hey Mr. Old Guy and Guilty As Charged were written by pedigreed songwriters like Marshall Crenshaw and even Brian Wilson’s Smile (which is parodied in the film) co-writer Van Dyke Parks.
Musical biopics were ripe for parody and like other movie spoofs—Scary Movie and Airplane! come to mind—Walk Hard does a good R-rated job at taking the Mickey out of the genre.
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