Why ‘Walk Hard’ Is The Greatest Music Biopic Ever Made
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis opened yesterday, and there is little doubt that the latest music biopic about a very famous, very complicated, and very dead pop culture icon will dazzle audiences, appease the critics, and put together a tidy little awards campaign for its principal players. The rock star biopic is a tried and true formula that can reliably bring in a hefty sum at the box office, courtesy of its subject’s established fan base and will usually attract a slew of awards even while the film’s director is facing accusations of child molestation.
But the single most entertaining music biopic ever made wasn’t a box office success, won no awards, and wasn’t even “based on a true story." Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is the peak of the genre, even as a genre parody, and all other attempts at putting a rock star’s origin story on film pale in comparison.
It’s impressive that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was ever made in the first place. Director Jake Kasdan brought the idea of a fake biopic in the vein of the 2005 film Walk the Line to his friend Judd Apatow, and together they wrote a script which landed on the 2006 Blacklist, a yearly roundup of all the screenplays that failed to get a single bite on the production company pitch circuit.
Thankfully, Columbia Pictures took a chance on the film the very next year, and they were able to shoot it, edit it, and release it by December 2007, just in time for awards season. Of course, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story wouldn’t win any awards – despite the title song grabbing a Golden Globe nomination – and Columbia Pictures wouldn’t even make their money back at the box office, with Walk Hard grossing just $20.6 million against a $35 million budget.
While Walk Hard was clearly too ahead of its time to be appreciated in 2007, it cries out to be revisited in 2022 as movie studios make a run on the life rights of just about every available icon with Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Respect, and now Elvis all rolling out the same template of a lionizing but “gritty” and “realistic” portrayal of a beloved superstar. These kinds of films tend to simplify the complicated lives of complicated artists in order to draw a straight line from their hardships to their accomplishments. Walk Hard is the prototype, the Hero’s Journey etched into film and imitated with a straight face ad nauseam some fifteen years later.
“You're gonna have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays.” This is how Tim Meadows’ character Sam McPherson introduces the audience to our tortured songbird of a protagonist backstage before a concert in the “present day” shortly before we learn his origin story. It’s a droll exposure of a tired framing device -- pretending to start the film in medias res before flashing back to begin the story at its actual inception.
We cut back to Dewey’s humble beginnings in rural Alabama when his idyllic American childhood is shattered after he accidentally chops his brother in half with a machete. His family breaks from the trauma, with his father pronouncing that “the wrong kid died” – a line he will repeat seven separate times throughout the film, one of Walk Hard’s more morbid running gags.
This early trauma drives Dewey to the blues, which he learns to play in record time. The film then flashes forward to Dewey at 14 years old, with the child actor replaced by a very much not 14 year old John C. Reilly whose performance at a talent show gets him kicked out of his parents’ house for playing “the devil’s music”.
Dewey’s struggle with his family and the guilt over his halving of his brother act as the catalysts for his music career, and later his struggles with drugs, which he never pays for. Not even once. During the course of Dewey’s story, he manages to invent pretty much every genre of music, he meets Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles, he cheats on his wife, alienates those close to him, and eventually, miraculously, redeems himself by playing one last spectacular show before dying three minutes after walking offstage.
Walk Hard frames Dewey’s early strife as the driving force behind his entire music career and uses his internal struggle between light and darkness as the explanation for his career’s success and the excuse for the failings in his personal life. The film collects the tropes and idiosyncrasies of the music biopic genre, leaning most heavily on Walk the Line as its biggest influence. But at its core, Walk Hard achieves the goal that every director of a music biopic sets their sights on: convincing its audience that every traumatic incident and every mistake the hero makes is done in order to reach their grand destiny of making incredibly popular and culturally significant music.
The problem that appears in most of the more serious music biopics is that the gray-to-dark areas of these figures’ lives are never meaningfully explored except to make their accomplishments seem that much more grand in comparison. In one such instance, Sacha Baron Cohen left the long-in-the-works Freddie Mercury biopic that eventually became Bohemian Rhapsody because he wanted to portray the real Freddie Mercury “warts and all”, which the surviving members of Queen saw as a threat to their legacy.
The resulting project was a slightly more sanitized film structured almost identically to Walk Hard – it starts with a Queen concert, but then cuts back to when Freddie was a nobody. He starts to build a career and his vices begin to manifest, then as he grows more successful he alienates more of those close to him and indulges in his demons. At the end, he reconciles with his collaborators, gives one last great performance, then dies offscreen.
Walk Hard shared the secret formula for music biopics while expertly satirizing the genre and exposing the laziness of so many of these screenwriters who attempt to craft the narrative of a beloved artist’s discography out of their life story. These films all treat trauma as a motivation and personal demons as a necessary evil for making great music, and they follow the exact same beats on the way to the exact same conclusion. Despite being a parody, Walk Hard does all of that in a much more entertaining manner and with the self-awareness that the serious films are lacking.
It also showed us Jack White’s Elvis impression, and if that’s not award-worthy then I don’t know what is.
Top Image: Columbia Pictures
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