In 2007, Walk Hard wasn’t a hit. But now, it’s brilliant.
by Nathan Rabin for Fatherly Magazine
Judd Apatow was the hottest comedy filmmaker in the world when 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was released to mixed to positive but hardly glowing reviews and underwhelming box office. Apatow was a revered comic mind thanks to his work on cult shows like the Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show, The Critic, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared before he emerged as a cinematic force with his directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The surprise 2005 smash made Steve Carell a movie star and did wonders for its prodigiously gifted ensemble cast. The sleeper hit’s equally successful 2007 follow-up Knocked Up similarly made a Canadian stoner named Seth Rogen an unlikely box-office juggernaut.
2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2006’s Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and 2007’s Superbad established Apatow as one of the movie world’s hottest producers as well, a uniquely gifted star-maker with an incredible eye for young talent behind the camera and in front of it.
So expectations were high when Apatow collaborated with protege Jake Kasdan (the son of screenwriter and director Lawrence) on the screenplay for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a wild musical comedy parodying the Oscar-festooned 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the 2004 Ray Charles biopic Ray specifically and histrionic musician biopics, in general, starring Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby cut-up John C. Reilly as the lead character, a larger-than-life pastiche of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Rotten and a slew of other musical greats who lived large and left massive trails of wreckage in their wake.
The studio sold the character of Dewey Cox as much as it did the film, sending the charismatic actor and musician on a tour of the country where he performed concerts in character, including an appearance on Good Morning, America. It did not work. Apatow’s box-office heat couldn’t keep Walk Hard from flopping at the box office, grossing about twenty million dollars on a thirty-five million dollar budget.
Despite Reilly’s talent and charm, the world did not fall in love with Dewey Cox at the time of Walk Hard’s release. But in the ensuing decade and a half Reilly’s pitch-perfect parody of The Man in Black and half the pop icons in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came to take on a life of its own. Dewey Cox has become a pop icon in his own right, not unlike the musical titans he so joyously spoofs.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is the Airplane! of musical biopics. Just as the Zucker Brothers’ 1980 smash looms larger than the ostensibly serious disaster movies it sent up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story today is more fondly and often remembered than Walk the Line and Ray, which were big hits in addition to winning important Oscars.
Kasdan and Apatow’s comedy gets the details of fact-based musical melodramas so right that it casts a long, intimidating shadow over every bombastic musical blockbuster that followed, particularly 2019’s Bohemian Rhapsody and this year’s Elvis. In a post-Walk Hard world whenever someone makes a shamelessly melodramatic and cliched tribute to a legendary rocker it risks being compared to a non-satirical, non-comic version of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Kasdan’s beloved musical comedy begins at the end, with an elderly Dewey Cox less than fifteen minutes from the end of his life. He’s about to return to the live stage after a decades-long absence. He’s psyching himself up emotionally for his big comeback because, as his drummer Sam (Tim Meadows, who steals the film through deadpan underplaying) explains to a stage manager, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.”
The film then unfolds as one giant flashback to Cox’s entire life that begins with him as a child frolicking in Alabama in 1946 with his brother Nate. Nate can’t stop talking about how excited he is to accomplish wonderful things over the course of his long, eventful life. In biopics like this that kind of talk guarantees that the dreamer with the big plans will die dramatically and soon.
Sure enough, poor Nate is sliced clear in half during an innocent machete fight with his adoring brother, a defining slapstick tragedy that haunts Dewey literally, in that his brother’s ghost taunts him throughout his life, as well as figuratively. The accidental killing destroys young Dewey’s relationship with his hard-as-nails dad Pa (Raymond J. Barry).
The leathery survivor conveys his murderous hatred of his surviving son through his catchphrase, “The wrong kid died!”, which he roars at regular intervals. Barry, a distinguished dramatic film and theater actor, plays the role completely straight. His apoplectic patriarch’s oft-stated contention that Dewey should be dead and his long-dead son should be living never stops being explosively funny.
Walk Hard is a marvelously meta satire that is forever calling attention to itself and its own artifice, as well as the hokey cliches of the genre. The pop icons Dewey meets in his rocky road through stardom don’t just helpfully always refer to themselves and each other by their full names; they also specify what bands they belong to, just in case there’s even a single person in the audience wondering whether the John with the John Lennon haircut hanging out with the other Beatles in India is in fact THE John Lennon of Beatles fame.
Cox’s talent is so explosive that his breakout song is a smash less than an hour after he recorded it. He’s a baby-faced innocent, a man-child with the body and face of a giant toddler who enthusiastically falls victim to every vice known to man. He’s a bigamist who cheats on his wives, abandons his dozens of children so that he can focus on self-destruction and becomes addicted to pretty much every illicit substance.
Yet because Reilly is so innately likable and human, he remains far more sympathetic than a character with his sins has any right to be. For all of its gleeful irreverence, there’s something genuinely sincere, even reverent at the film’s core. This is particularly true of its killer soundtrack, which epitomizes its uniquely satisfying combination of rock and roll naughtiness and unexpected sweetness.
Walk Hard has endured because it is a loving, knowing celebration of rock mythology as well as an inspired and hilarious parody. It cares enough to get the details exactly right, whether that means having Dewey Cox transform David Bowie’s “Starman” into pure disco kitsch during a stint as a variety show host in the 1970s or nailing the insanely ambitious sound of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys when he was going out of his mind and changing pop music forever with Pet Sounds and Smile.
Walk Hard’s flashback structure means that everything leads up to the all-important closing anthem that, we’re informed by Eddie Vedder, one of many very game rock stars playing themselves, will be “his final masterpiece that will sum up his entire life.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on any song but the epic that follows, “Beautiful Ride”, which was written by Dan Bern and The Candy Butcher’s Mike Viola, soars above even the highest expectations. With its triumphant strings, majestic melody, emotional vocal by Reilly and elegiac air it legitimately is a masterpiece that seems to sum up Dewey Cox’s entire life while also being a funny and dead-on parody of songs that aspire to capture everything good and bad about existence in less than four tuneful minutes.
I suspect that “Beautiful Ride” has been played often at weddings as well as funerals. Like the rest of the soundtrack, it works beautifully as music long after the joke should have worn out its welcome. That’s the beauty of the film’s soundtrack. The jokes never get old no matter how often you’ve listened to them. The same is true of the film itself. It is eminently re-watchable and insanely quotable, a movie that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.
Walk Hard is now a part of music, film, and comedy history. It may have stiffed at the box office the first time around but its cult is huge and ever-growing. Its brilliant use of pastiche and homage calls to mind the originals of “Weird Al” Yankovic so it seems fitting that Yankovic and co-screenwriter/director Eric Appel borrowed extensively from Walk Hard for their own warped take on the cliches and conventions of the musical biopic, this year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Yankovic’s comedy is an instant cult classic that depicts the five-time Grammy winner as a decidedly Dewey Cox-like libertine and drunk while offering a similarly nuanced and knowing parody of pop music mythology.
Dewey Cox may die at the end of Walk Hard but he didn’t go anywhere. Nor did his movie. Cox’s music will live on forever thanks to the enduring popularity and influence of a pop classic that only gets funnier and more relevant with time.