Walk Hard

dir: Jake Kasdan
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Walk Hard is, truth be told, a more honest, funnier and more musically adept biopic about Johnny Cash’s life than that film that came out a few years ago with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon whose name doesn’t escape me for the moment. Truth be told, the one doesn’t exist without the other since Walk Hard is such a parody of both Walk the Line and Ray, not only in name but in structure and key moments as well. Substitute actual blindness with smell-blindness, and they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Oh, the structure. At the movie’s beginning, an aged Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is about to go on stage, but seems to be waiting for something. A stagehand goes up and hassles him about the need to go onstage in short order. One of Dewey’s longstanding bandmates pipes up, “Can’t you see the man has to think about his entire life before he goes onstage?”

And, of course, from there the story moves back in time to where Dewey is but a boy, and playing with his much more talented and accomplished little brother Nate, who dreams of doing great things one day.

But poor Nate is not long for this world, on account of a terrible case of being cut in half, and Dewey has to live in his shadow for the rest of the flick and his life, knowing full well that his father hates him for taking his good son away from him. Even fifty years later, when Dewey approaches his father for a moment of reconciliation, he spies his father throwing haybales and singing “the wrong kid died, the wrong kid died.”

Heart-warming stuff. But for now, we get to watch the cliché-ridden and very familiar rise of Dewey from provincial hick to airwaves conquering hero. Along the way he destroys many a bathroom sink in rage or frustration, fathers hundreds of children with a nagging, unsupportive wife (Kristen Wiig) who believes in him only so far that he will fail, despite his success, and goes through every drug stage there is on his way through America’s musical and cultural history and into our hearts.

He also finds his ‘true’ love in the form of June Carter Witherspoon-clone Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), who won’t give up the goods until there’s a ring on her finger, despite his still being married to his current shrew wife.

Of course there are ups and downs in the journey of life, and there are even more so in the life of a rock star, who straddles the eras and genres, everything from Bob Dylan rip-off and Elvis contemporary to Brian Wilsonesque acid freaked out Maharishi-following Beatles worshipper. Dewey follows each and every trend, abuses each and every drug on his path to realising What’s Important in Life.

And what is that thing that is most important in life? Family, of course. Not actually looking after a family, but throwing a baseball around with your 22 legitimate and hundreds of illegitimate children.

It’s hard to know whether this flick works independently of what it satirises, as in, is there much of a joke if you don’t know what part of Walk the Line the flick is riffing on? I can’t really judge that, having watched Walk the Line a few times, and being clearly in the position to get the joke, but in a more general sense I guess Walk Hard follows and parodies the tried and tested line so familiar to those who’ve watched any ‘serious’ biopics about musical legends. Be it Ray or Great Balls of Fire or Coalminer’s Daughter or La Vie en Rose or Control or any other flick you can think of about those cursed musicians, the rise and fall (and if they’re lucky, rise again) of any of these shmucks is familiar to anyone because it’s always the same fucking story.

Walk Hard spends most of its energies highlighting how ridiculous the biopic format is, down to the cringeworthy way these film scripts will often use a line of dialogue that is taken specifically from a famous song from an artist’s repertoire, such as the sphincter-loosening way in which Witherspoon’s character in Walk the Line tells Cash and his fellow drunken musicians at a certain point that, being drunk in the middle of the day means that “you boys ain’t walking the line”. From that moment you, as the dunderheaded audience member are supposed to say to yourself, “Wait, that’s where the famous song title and song must come from, that dramatic recreation of that very moment. This is the genesis of genius right here!”

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Even the members of Metallica don’t walk around having conversations with each other saying, “Wait a second, you know how you just said “Philipe Genty is a master of puppets and puppetry in general”? Well, we should write a song called Master of Puppets, whaddya think, Lars?” “Oh, I concur, James, I most certainly concur.”

The long trawl through the drug gutter is also parodied, what with a long-standing bandmate (played by the utterly unfunny Tim Meadows) continually being caught using drugs with groupies, unintentionally enticing Dewey into using them by angrily denouncing every great thing those particular drugs can do “They make sex even better! It doesn’t give you a hangover!” etc etc. And then of course his inevitable drug rehab stint involves crying out on a bed for more and then less blankets.

Throughout all this John C. Reilly, long the butt of many a film’s jokes, remains affable and likeable throughout. Sure, he’s played second banana so long that it’s surprising to see him in a lead role, but this is his payday for having to play idiot straight man to the likes of Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston.

He’s great in the role, even if he does play it mostly the way that Will Ferrell would, and does a decent job with singing his own songs. He and Jenna Fischer do a good job embracing and ridiculing the Johnny Cash / June Carter dynamic at the same time.

There are numerous funny highlight aspects in the flick, not least of which is having Reilly play Dewey Cox as a young teenager all the way through to advanced old age. Almost every element from Cash’s story is well used to conjure up the mythical status of Dewey Cox.

I also found his degeneration into a Brian Wilson-like LSD addled lunatic was pretty funny, along with the request for 50,000 didgeridoos to get the wall of sound just right for his next album was priceless. The framing device of Dewey being about to go onstage, so perfectly parodying the idiocy of the way the Folsom Prison concert was used in Walk the Line, works beautifully here, especially with the song he has to perform which Summarises His Entire Life, and what happens immediately after, is pure comedy gold.

Having ruthless rapper Ghostface Killah talk about Dewey like he’s a real person, and possibly in a manner indicating that Ghostface actually thinks Dewey is a real person, was scarily funny as well.

Shit I didn’t find as funny were the Beatles and Maharishi bit, any time Tim Meadows spoke, the animated bit parodying Yellow Submarine, the obvious bits (like in any Judd Apatow flick that has come out over the last three years) where the cast improvises poorly, or the appearance of Jonah Hill as Dewey’s dead brother Nate. I realise that Apatow feels obligated to put some of these actors in every film he produces, but is there anyone anywhere on the planet that actually finds dead-eyed obese Jonah Hill even remotely funny? In anything? Aren’t there dead-eyed, obese lesser known actors just begging for a crack at some real acting work who’d do just as well, if not better?

Overall I found it amusing enough to keep with it, but that shouldn’t be seen as a ringing endorsement or as a promise that it’s funny as all hell. It helps to have liked Walk the Line but to know how much of a fantasy that was in terms of telling an even remotely accurate version of Cash’s life. Which is why there are ways in which this flick is a more accurate portrayal of what Johnny Cash’s life was really like, if you can believe it, or me. Which you probably shouldn’t.

And when it comes down to it, it’s always got to be about the music. And with lyrics like “In my dreams you’re blowing me… kisses”, how can you doubt this man’s status in the pantheon of stars?

8 times just thinking about the dad singing “the wrong kid died” still makes me crack up out of 10

“I'm cut in half pretty bad.” – sounds serious, Walk Hard.