'Walk Hard' at 15: Super-Smart Music Biopic Satire | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

‘Walk Hard’ at 15: Super-Smart Music Biopic Satire

Say this about Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which arrived in December of 2017, 15 years ago now: It was incredibly great at pointing out the clichés of the music biopic genre. I’d say that music biopics were never the same afterward, but really, Hollywood keeps churning out movies, even to this day, that features almost everything that Walk Hard was making fun of. 

The musical numbers are nearly universally outstanding, but where the film falls short a bit is in delivering consistent laughs. Because its gag batting average isn’t quite as high as most of the better comedies of its era. 

Walk Hard, directed by Jake Kasdan and written by Kasdan and Judd Apatow, is inspired more than anything else by Walk the Line and Ray, the biopics of, respectively, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, that had arrived in the years before it. 

It starred John C. Reilly, in a rare leading role, as Dewey Cox, a country/rock/pop singer-songwriter whose story and musicianship take their cue from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Neil Diamond, and various others. 

Genre Staples

The film goes through every touchstone of the genre: Early-in-life tragedy. Disapproving parents (“the wrong kid died!,” Dewey’s dad says repeatedly). Actors being way too old to play their characters while young. The mean, unbelieving first wife (Kristen Wiig), was succeeded by the June Carter-Cash-like second one (Jenna Fischer). Cameos by recognizable actors playing real-life people. The white hero subtly steals from Black musicians. Exploitative, Jewish record executives (a group of Hasids led by Harold Ramis, which is more a mockery of that as a biopic cliché than Kanye-style antisemitism).

And of course, there are drugs. The film makes fun of the addiction-assisted rise-and-fall in these sorts of movies by having Dewey keep walking in on his drummer (Tim Meadows) trying out different drugs. 

The film, in addition to the plot beats, also makes the cadences and filmmaking grammar of the genre, using all the same montages that we’ve seen in the likes of Walk the Line. 

Not All Laughs

But for as great as the structure and musicality are, the gags don’t all work. 

For instance, I will maintain forever that the Beatles scene isn’t funny. And the animated psychedelic scene — like every other animated psychedelic scene in history — isn’t funny either: 

But Walk Hard certainly called out its own subgenre, although not to the point where filmmakers sought to avoid such clichés in the future. The 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, as has been pointed out numerous times since its release, was almost a beat-for-beat unspooling of every cliché that Walk Hard was mocking. 

Subsequent biopic of music greats, like Rocket Man and Elvis, have at least gotten away a bit from the basic formula. This year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, a pretend biopic of Weird Al, was trying to do a lot of the same things Walk Hard was, although it leaned further into absurdity than pure genre mockery. 

Walk Hard deserves credit for putting forth great effort in getting all the details right, even if it’s not quite the laugh machine as some of Apatow’s other films around that period. 

Damaged City Festival 2019 | Photos | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

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