Before being honoured at a rocknroll awards show, legendary rocker Dewey Cox (Reilly) reflects on his troubled past. As a child, he accidentally cut his talented brother in half with a machete, but his promise to be excellent in life for the both of the
“Guys, I need Cox…” As double entendres go, it’s pretty poor, but that’s never stopped us in the Empire office. Why, it seems like only yesterday that X2 was going into production and we were wondering aloud how badly director Bryan Singer wanted to grab (Brian) Cox and try to keep (Alan) Cumming. But that’s childish work humour for you – nobody gets paid to write it, or indeed film it. And the trouble with Walk Hard is that, despite a rich premise, some wonderful opportunities and a terrific deadpan performance by John C Reilly, this spoof rock biopic never quite troubles the comic pantheon.
The roots of Walk Hard lie clearly in the aftermath of the Oscar one-two whammy of Ray and Walk The Line, a brace of by-the-numbers music biographies that bordered on parody themselves. Both films followed the underdog equation to the letter: struggling muso plus tragedy divided by addiction and multiplied by the love of a good woman equals a great American success story. And never mind the truth: a sensitive portrayal from a hip actor, plus a spot of movie magic, will distract the audience from the inconvenient and potentially unsympathetic human flaws that Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and, let’s face it, everybody has. Because, really, aren’t the words Hollywood and rock’n’roll mutually exclusive from the get-go? Even Oliver Stone struggled with The Doors, a film that failed at the box-office simply because he couldn’t find a way to sell Jim Morrison, the lewd, rude, shaman of rock legend, to more sensitive (or is that sensible?) moviegoers in the midwest.
The Doors gets a mention here because it’s one of the many riffs in Walk Hard that don’t really ring true. The first half hour or so is straight Charles/Cash territory, with a poor kid making his mark through music. But once success comes calling, Cox gets to drinking and screwing and doing all the seductive drugs that his drummer ‘warns’ him against in the most tempting terms (“Get outta here, Dewey, you don’t want no part of this shit!”). And here, the comedy steam train jumps its rails; having taken LSD with The Beatles, Cox becomes an acid-head who jams with Charlie Manson and spends hours in the studio like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, jumping for hours on his trampoline much as Wilson played in his sandpit. But how did we get here exactly? Cox is not explicitly a Zelig-style figure who morphs from one genre into another – he ends up being a legend for playing the same music he started out with.
But now you’ve been warned that it doesn’t necessarily work, don’t take that to mean that it isn’t funny. At its best, Walk Hard is daft and sniggersome, and endearingly self-deprecating in its approach. The celeb cameos are throwaway, but a scene with Cox meeting The Beatles is a delight, with the not-so-fab four pouring scorn on their rotten Liverpool accents and an Apu-style Maharashi wailing, “The Beatles – please stop fighting here in India!” And as for the Cox/cocks stuff, there’s plenty of that from start to finish, most beautifully in an orgy scene with Dewey on the phone to his long-suffering wife, with a naked man’s shrivelled member dangling innocently in the corner of the frame.
Whether it will ever achieve cult status is a moot point – it’s more likely that the catchy original, Reilly-sung songs will outlive it – but Walk Hard is a pleasant enough diversion for now.
John C Reilly just about holds together a funny but patchy comedy that puts a ten-megaton bomb under the cliched rock biopic and never detonates it.