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Every winter the prudent among us get a flu shot in order to soldier though the season more or less intact. We at Trunkworthy suggest accenting this health regimen with a healthy dose of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. As far as we know, the 2007 comedy is the only thing that is proven to help you survive an equally insidious malady: Seasonal Biopic Disorder.
Not yet recognized by the CDC, SBD tends to strike during that stretch between January and April when we feel collectively compelled to catch up on the well-meaning and high-minded films from the year before that were based on the important and wholly inspirational lives of historical heavyweights. While many of these movies are good (and a few of them are truly great), the weight of their good intentions and epic scope can feel crushing, especially when their tropes become just a tad too familiar. That’s where Walk Hard comes in, a film that does for this hoary genre what This is Spinal Tap did for arena rock: simultaneously revel in its grandeur while taking it down enough pegs so it ends up below the risers.
In telling the story of a fictional Alabama blues savant with an unfortunate history of slicing people in half with a machete, Walk Hard leaves no biopic cliche unturned and few pop musical styles untouched. It’s the perfect movie for anyone who’s ever considered Biopic Bingo, where you fill a square with every iconic figure cameo (here they’re intentionally miscast—think Jack White as Elvis and Jack Black as Paul McCartney), every spiral through drug addiction (“You want no part of this shit”), every rehab cold sweat (“We’re going to need more blankets!”). But the film also manages to transcend parody even while exemplifying it: it presents a loving alternative and well-informed history of rock ’n’ roll from ’55 to ’75—made by people who love that music as much as we do. For further evidence, check out the film’s soundtrack (more on that below), which hits all the right notes as parody and history—no surprise given that the musicians behind it include Trunkworthy favorites Marshall Crenshaw, Dan Bern, Van Dyke Parks, and Mike Viola, who also happens to be the lead singer of our other favorite fake biopic, That Thing You Do!.
The beauty of Walk Hard is that you can appreciate Walk the Line or Ray, or even The Doors or Get on Up, and still laugh at lines like, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays” and “What do you think, George Harrison of the Beatles?” It does this thanks to a balls-out lead performance from John C. Reilly and an inspired lineup of original songs that he sings and plays himself, from the Cash-like title track to the misguided feminist ode “Ladies First” to the Dadaesque Dylan send-up “Royal Jelly.” Like everything in the film, they are carried off by Riley, who as the sink-ripping, smell-blind Candide of a rock legend makes the most of his put-me-in-coach moment. It is a part only he could have pulled off, and a high point in the actor’s 25-year, 50-plus film career.
Walk Hard—an R-rated movie built for people who still find Airplane! and The Jerk hilariously funny—failed to click with audiences when it came out, ending a box office winning streak for Judd Apatow, who produced and cowrote the film with director Jake Kasdan. It’s worth noting that Apatow’s biggest apparent failures, from The Cable Guy to a pair of spectacular one-and-done TV series, The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks (both safely in the trunk), are also his most accomplished works. Here, he has not only helped bring to fruition one of the great comedies to ever take on the breadth of 20th-century American pop music, but he has also done a great public service. After years of suffering in silence, thanks to Walk Hard and the epic life of Dewey Cox, we no longer have to face SBD alone.
BONUS CUT: The soundtrack to Walk Hard is an extended riff on the movie’s alternate history of rock ’n’roll. Like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, the music manages to be both hysterically funny and historically accurate in a way that could only be the work of drooling fanatics. Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, dilettante protest singers, and coked-out ’70s variety-show performances are lovingly skewered with surgical precision. But the version of the soundtrack you have to hear is the 30-song deluxe version [available on iTunes], which gives you all that plus the misguided feminist anthem “Ladies First” (“you don’t need to wear no lipstick, don’t shave under your arms, be as ugly as you want to be!”), the Dylan-mighta-really-wrote-this “Farmer Glickstein,” and the spectacularly self-indulgent me-generation anthem “Weeping On The Inside.” The soundtrack stands on its own as a concept album and works on every level, even if you’ve never seen the film. But seriously, see the damn film already.