Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is an under-appreciated comedy gem that is finally developing the cult classic status it deserves. I’ve been a fan of the film since its release in 2007, but I was inspired to watch it again recently after reading this long-form compilation interview with the film’s creators.
Directed by Jake Kasdan, produced by comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow, and co-written by both, Walk Hard is a musical biopic parody starring John C Reilly as Dewey Cox, musical superstar. Despite parodying the massively successful films Ray and Walk The Line, which were released a few years prior, Walk Hard was a box office flop on release, grossing $20 million on a $35 million budget. There were many reasons for this, partly because it was swallowed up and forgotten in the wake of all the other massive Apatow products of the mid 00’s (Anchorman, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc). However, as time goes by, Walk Hard may prove to be the Apatow project that is remembered most fondly.
Although it shares a lot of the trademarks of an Apatow comedy (including many of the actors commonly seen in his films), Walk Hard sets itself apart with its almost absurd level of attention to detail. Everything in the film is pitch perfect. Musical Director Michael Andrews led a group of musicians and song writers, including John C Reilly, and together they wrote dozens of original songs, spanning a huge array of genres, from sickly sweet 50’s pop songs and Dylan-esque surrealism to 70s era protest folk and punk, and everything in between.
Reilly was not only involved in the writing of the songs, he performed them too, playing guitar and singing each and every one, and with a versatile singing voice this film really is a showcase for his talents. Not only does he succeed in the musical parts, he also gives a subtly great performance as Dewey Cox. He’s hilarious, but always truthful. Just like the rest of the film, Reilly somehow rides a line that is both earnest and satirical at the same time. If Dewey Cox was a real person, Reilly would be lauded for his ‘method’ approach to playing him. They even took Dewey Cox on a real, seven-city tour to promote the film, Dewey Cox and The Hard Walkers: Cox Across America. It’s a level of dedication that comes through in the film and Reilly’s performance is the pillar that the rest of the film is built upon.
Helping to ground Reilly in the reality of the world was Production Designer Jefferson Sage and Costume Designer Debra McGuire, who both do incredible work. Everything is period specific. No matter which decade the film happens to be flying through in any given scene, the costumes, hairstyles, furniture, it all feels right. As Reilly notes, the film “doesn’t look like a comedy. It looks like a biopic.”
So, in a way, this film takes itself very seriously, but at the same time, it definitely does not. Walk Hard immediately sets its tone when it opens backstage at a venue, as we follow a stagehand desperately searching for the star. “Mr Cox? Mr Cox? Guys, I need Cox!” Yup. A dick joke. Straight out of the gate. It’s all supremely silly. But then Walk Hard quickly shows us just how self-aware it is. The stagehand finally finds his Cox, silhouetted, leaning against a wall, deep in thought. Before the stagehand can get to Cox, he is stopped by a band member, “You’re going to have to give him a moment, son… Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” Cue dramatic music and a flashback to 1946.
From there, the film is a rapid-fire assault on all the clichés that populate musical biopics. From the complications of one actor playing a role that spans a lifetime (Reilly, despite quite clearly being a middle-aged man, first appears when Cox is meant to be 14 years old), lines of dialogue inspiring song lyrics, absurd levels of tragedy following the star through his life, constantly escalating drug use, this film has it all. This attention to detail is both the film’s strength, and its main weakness. While there are plenty of stand-alone moments of humour, much of the comedy revolves around the clichés and tropes of the biopic genre, and if you’re not familiar with them, a lot of the jokes could fly right by you. This a film that requires a certain amount of cinematic literacy to truly enjoy. Even the lighting is hilarious, if you know what to look for. Everything is turned up to 11.
Reading the interview, it becomes very clear that Walk Hard was truly a passion project. Everyone involved gave it everything they had and truly believed they’d created something special. Which is what made its commercial failure such a tragedy. Reilly says that he felt “personally responsible for all the money they didn’t make back”, and it took him a “couple of years to dig out of the sadness of that.” Which is partly why I’m writing a review for a twelve year old film; sometimes fate determines that something truly great is missed and subsequently forgotten. Walk Hard is one of those great things and I really believe that if more people had seen it, it’d be remembered as the classic it quite clearly is.