Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Apatow/Columbia/GH Three, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home in time to watch a movie, and I wanted to screen one of the ones we recently picked up from the bargain table at Vons: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a so-called “mockumentary” (one of those made-up words from P.R. people I can’t stand — it’s not as bad as “dramedy” but it’s close) about the decidedly fictitious pop-music star Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly, voice-doubled by Michael Andrews), who first makes it big in 1953 with a hit song called “Walk Hard” that sounds like primitive rockabilly and keeps going until 2007, when the film was made. It opens with Cox being told he’s expected on stage in a minute or two, and we see him leaning his head against a wall as an offstage voice says, “Before he can go on, he’s got to review the whole story of his life.” The whole story of his life then unfolds for us in a series of flashbacks that starts out with Dewey growing up dirt-poor in Springberry, Alabama with his father (Raymond J. Barry), mother (Margo Martindale) and brother Nate (Chip Hormess), of whom his parents expect great things: he’s already a classical piano prodigy and he lists all the things he wants to be when he grows up, from astronaut to President.

Needless to say, Nate is not long for this world; in what’s pretty obviously a spoof of Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic from which writers Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan (Kasdan also directed) took the basic spine of their plot, the two brothers have a fight in the barn with machetes and Dewey slices Nate in half — in a gag pretty obviously borrowed from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the top half remains animate for quite some time — while throughout the rest of the movie Dewey’s dad sometimes mutters, sometimes spits out and sometimes sings, “The wrong kid died.” Dewey learns to play blues guitar from a (presumably) homeless Black person, played by real-life ancient blues singer David “Honeyboy” Edwards (this is pretty clearly an offtake on the legend that Hank Williams, Sr. learned guitar from an itinerant Black musician named “Teetot”), and picks it up with impressive speed. Then he gets a job sweeping and mopping the floors at a Black nightclub until one day the star attraction, a Jackie Wilson-style soul singer, shows up with his hands heavily bandaged from a household accident and Dewey goes on in his place and sings an ode to being — and having a woman who loves — a “Negro man.” (In 1947 Frankie Laine actually recorded “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?,” so as ridiculous as this scene seems it actually has some grounding in reality.)

His performance is witnessed by three Jewish scouts who become his managers and get him an audition with Planet Records (read: Elvis Presley at Sun Records), which he nearly blows by coming in with a rock version of Dean Martin’s hit “That’s Amore” (an in-joke reference to the real Elvis, who likewise came into the Sun studio and tried to impress owner Sam Phillips by sounding like Dean Martin; Phillips asked Elvis if he knew any blues, and it turned out he and the band members there to accompany him, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, knew several songs by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and started jamming on them; Phillips picked out “That’s All Right, Mama,” and that became Elvis’s first record). Then on the spot he makes up the song that will be his star-making hit, “Walk Hard.” The 14-year-old Cox becomes a major star and marries his 12-year-old girlfriend Edith (Kristen Wiig, who’s been much talked about recently as the next major talent to break from independent films to mainstream stardom) even though she continually belittles him and says he’s going to fail … after he’s already bought her a house and they’ve had three kids. The film’s plot then loosely follows the evolution of pop music over the next 30 years or so, as Dewey becomes a Zelig-like character. He meets and falls in love with a church singer named Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), and in yet another scene clearly “borrowed” from Walk the Line they sing a song together called “Let’s Duet,” with more double entendres than any song I can think of since back in the 1920’s and 1930’s when double entendres were the only way you could write a song about sex.

Then Dewey discovers politics and turns into a Bob Dylan-esque protest singer (the songs he sings in this phase, which take Dylan’s famously imagistic lyrics and push them into total gibberish, are among the most hilarious in the whole movie), after which he meets the Beatles (three of whom are played by reasonable simulacra, though Jack Black makes an ill-advised cameo as Paul McCartney even though the two look nothing alike), and after that he goes to India to meditate with the Maharishi and the Beatles and comes back majorly hooked on LSD (needless to say, Cox gets nearly every drug habit known to real-life music stars — though Kasdan and Apatow stopped short of having him do heroin — all in the same way: he bursts into the dressing room occupied by the rest of his band, and his long-time drummer says, “You don’t want to mess with that shit,” and of course he does) and involved in a demented recording project obviously patterned on Brian Wilson’s Smile (at one point he decides that one didgeridoo isn’t enough for him and he needs 50,000 of them) that isn’t finished and ends when he’s busted for PCP and, for the second time in the movie, he goes into rehab. Eventually he settles things with his father — he cuts him in half with a machete the way he did with his brother — and one of his kids comes along and whines that they never played catch, so Dewey retires and spends the next couple of decades playing catch with his kids — all 36 of them by his two wives and various groupies and tricks. Then he’s recruited to receive a lifetime achievement award on a live TV show for which he writes his final song, “A Wonderful Ride,” and he performs it with a real-life all-star aggregation — and the film fades out as a title tells us Dewey Cox died just three hours after giving that performance.

Though not quite at the level of This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind or the virtually forgotten granddaddy of all mock/rockumentaries, All You Need Is Cash (the brilliant coming together of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the original Saturday Night Live cast to spoof the Beatles as “the Rutles, the Pre-Fab Four”), Walk Hard is great fun. The gross-out gags and blatant sexual references the Apatow school of comedy is known for are here but they’re not as offensive as usual, and Apatow and Kasdan clearly knew (or had done their homework on) rock history: much of the fun of this movie is trying, moment by moment, to guess what real rock stars they’re making fun of. There’s even a bit of full-frontal male nudity in this one — Dewey Cox is polymorphously perverse — and overall Walk Hard is a great light-entertainment movie, held together by Reilly’s performance as well as a great set of gags. My favorite moment is when Edith catches him sucking Darlene’s toes and Dewey informs Edith that he’s married to Darlene — and Edith reminds him that he’s married to her and it’s illegal to be married to two people at once. “It is?” says Dewey. I also liked the scene in which Dewey talks about how he’s surrounded by temptations — and then the film cuts to five old Black guys singing “My Girl” in close harmony, and Dewey says, “Oh, no! The Temptations!”