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From the DVD Shelf: Walk Hard

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the few films from the past several years that Judd Apatow has had a hand in (he co-wrote the film and was one of its producers), that, despite his involvement, did not receive a lot of love from audiences upon its release.  My own recollection of seeing it in theatres was that it was sort of funny but not fantastic.  However, upon a second viewing on DVD last month, I must say that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this film!

Walk Hard is, first and foremost, an evisceration of a very specific type of film: the Oscar-bait musical bio-pic (like Ray, Walk the Line, etc.).  In scene after scene after scene, the film mercilessly sends-up every single ridiculous cliche of those types of movies.

We meet young Dewey growing up in a ramshackle farm down South, enjoying an idyllic life.  But a day of fun with his brother (“ain’t nothing horrible gonna happen today!” the doomed tyke promises) ends in tragedy after a machete-fighting accident.  Out of that grief, Dewey discovers his musical ability, playing the blues (“I got the blues… cut my brother in half…”).  A few years later, a nervous Dewey performs at a High School concert.  (Starting here, Dewey is played by John C. Reilly, despite the fact that the character is only 14 in this scene.  As Apatow and Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan note in their DVD commentary, they were interested in poking fun at  “just how young the lead actor THINKS he can play” in these sorts of movies.)   Despite the innocuousness of the pop ballad Dewey performs (entitled “Take My Hand”), the concert erupts into a frenzy of sexualized dancing (as, you know, Rock and Roll is wont to cause).  After being condemned by the local priest (“You think we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say take my hand?!”) and his father (“The wrong kid died!”), Dewey decides to leave home and set out on a musical career.

What follows reads like a crazy check-list of the types of scenes one could expect in these sorts of films, charting our hero’s rise and fall and eventual redemption.  Dewey gets an opportunity to perform his music for a disinterested record company executive (played brilliantly by John Michael Higgins, who proclaims: “You have failed conclusively!  There is nothing that you can do, here in this room, to turn that around!”) but, of course, once Dewey plays one of his own songs (the titular “Walk Hard”), the executive is blown away, as are his Hassidic Jewish backers (Harold Ramis — yes, Harold Ramis — Phil Rosenthal, and Martin Starr in delightfully over-the-top Hassidic get-up and accents).  As Dewey becomes a star, his path crosses with many famous musicians, played by an astounding array of actors in one bizarre cameo after another: Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly!  Jack White as Elvis Presley!  And, in the movie’s funniest scene, Dewey meets the Beatles, with Jack Black as Paul McCartney (“John, I’m sick of you being so dark when I’m so impish and whimsical!”), Paul Rudd as John Lennon, Justin Long as George Harrison, and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr.  In each case, the casting is so bizarre and yet so weirdly perfect.

The film continues to follow Dewey through the years as he morphs through a variety of musical styles and influences.  He goes through a Dylan phase, creating nonsensical protest songs.  (Here’s a line from the dead-on parody of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:  “Mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum/ fairy teapots mask the temper tantrums oh say can you see ’em.”)  Dewey, like Johnny Cash, is affected by his time in prison (“I understand the common man the way I never did before!”), leading to his writing a “Folsom Prison Blues”-type song called “Guilty as Charged.”  (“If you say my love is too large… then I’m guilty… guilty as charged…”)  Of course, as Dewey gets more and more successful he becomes increasingly arrogant and unmoored from reality.  In the ’70s, in another of my favorite sequences from the film, Dewey becomes obsessed with perfecting his “Pet Sounds”-esque musical masterpiece (“I’m hearing… more aboriginal percussionists.  And I want an army of digeridoos!  Fifty thousand digeridoos!”)

Ultimately, Dewey’s drug habits drive him to near-ruin and estrangement from his friends and fellow musicians.  But, as always happens in these movies, hitting rock bottom enables him to sort out his priorities and re-connect with his family.  Towards the end of his life, when he is invited to a musical salute to his life and career (in which we get to witness a wonderful and ridiculous cover of Dewey’s song “Walk Hard” by Jewel, Jackson Browne, Lyle Lovett, and Ghostface Killah), Dewey gets the opportunity to sum up his life for the audience in a wonderfully on-the nose parody of the typical bio-pic redemptive finish (“This, is finally what I’ve learned,” he sings: “And then in the end, it’s family and friends.  Loving yourself.  But not only yourself…”)

I’ve spent a while summarizing this film, but believe me I’ve only scratched the surface.  There are so many wonderful digressions.  Apatow, Kasdan and co. left no stone un-turned as, in moment after moment, they take everything that we’ve seen a million times in these musical bio-pics and turn the crazy up to eleven.  Similar to the way that I now find it difficult, after watching Tropic Thunder, not to laugh at the idea of “serious” Hollywood war movies, after Walk Hard I don’t think I can ever again take a movie like Ray or Walk the Line at all seriously.

I’m not sure why I was so lukewarm on this film the first time I saw it.  It might be because, in this sort of parody film, there aren’t really any characters for one to latch onto, emotionally.  But John C. Reilly is absolutely magnificent in the lead role.  He’s able to ground even the most insane bouts of lunacy in the film, and he’s able to be lovable even when engaging in over-the-top spoiled musician bad behavior.  And he is an astounding musician and singer.  By the way, the music in this film is phenomenal, and that’s something that became much more apparent to me upon a repeat viewing.  The filmmakers have created an enormous catalogue of songs for Dewey, which we hear in snippets throughout the film.  These songs are very catchy (and VERY funny), and the way each song is able to evoke a specific influence and style (as Dewey travels through the years and through an array of musical periods) is nothing sort of magnificent.  After watching this movie last month, I immediately went and downloaded the soundtrack from itunes (which contains complete versions of a whopping THIRTY songs created for the movie).  Needless to say, that soundtrack has been in REGULAR rotation on my ipod.

I also need to mention the film’s tremendous supporting cast.  The Office‘s Jenna Fischer is a delight as Dewey’s love Darlene, conveying innocence and naughtiness all at once.  SNL‘s Kristen Wiig has a harder role as Dewey’s first wife.  As Apatow and Kasdan describe on their commentary, “in order for our hero to be incredibly sympathetic and still heroic when he leaves his wife for another woman midway through the movie, you need his first wife to be AWFUL to him throughout the whole first half.”  Well, Wiig dives into that assignment head-first, creating a hysterical portrait of a shrewish wife who doesn’t believe that Dewey will ever amount to anything.  Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell are also terrific as Dewey’s much put-upon band-mates.  And there is an amazing array of other very funny people who pop up in small roles throughout the film: Craig Robinson (The Office, Knocked Up), Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock). Ed Helms (The Daily Show, The Office), David Krumholtz (playing almost the exact same role that he had in Ray), Jane Lynch (The 40 year Old Virgin, Role Models), and many other familiar faces all kill in their small roles.

As an added bonus, the DVD is packed with terrific special features.  There are lots of deleted and extended scenes, out-takes, and an entirely new cut of the film (entitled “The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut”).  There’s also a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes material that chronicles the enormous effort that went into creating all the music for the film.  Finally there is Apatow and Kasdan’s commentary track, which is insightful and funny (as you can tell since I’ve mentioned it several times already in this review).

Bottom line:  If you’ve enjoyed the other movies from the Apatow troupe (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc…) but you skipped Walk Hard, I suggest you remedy that oversight as soon as you can!

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