Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) is often witty and outright funny. Its problem is that it relies on wide-ranging pop cultural references from the 1960s and 1970s that would mean little to the age group towards which the film is aimed. Walk Hard is a satirical history of popular music—rock, folk, country, pop—in America since the 1950s. It's a send-up of rock-and-roll biographies and of the very nature of a pop music career. Dewey Cox is a country singer who gets incredible mileage out of his greatest hit, the eponymous "Walk Hard," and he spends much of his career riding the wave of whatever musical trend has recently crested. He always seems a few strokes behind the wave. Dewey is not particular intelligent, he's a bumbling screw-up, he's always succumbing to one temptation or another, and his inept drift through life makes for an often entertaining if occasionally tedious film.

Dewey goes through numerous phases: Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash (he is loosely modeled on Johnny Cash), and others. There's a brief reference to Jim Morrison and another to Conway Twitty. In one longer episode Dewey goes to Tibet to meditate with the Beatles. The trouble is that the audience towards which this film is aimed—the under-25 audience—doesn't have a particularly good memory of the figures and the decades to which the film refers. How many people in this age group know much about the history of the Beatles or recognize the style of Roy Orbison? Not many. Further, the comedy in this film is not particularly sophisticated, and one wonders how the audience in the age group that would recognize the cultural references—by this I mainly mean an over-50s audience--would respond to it.

I enjoyed the film, especially the musical sequences, which John C. Reilly, who plays Dewey, sings very well. The Bob Dylan parody is hilarious. But the narrative is thin and sometimes it founders. The musical numbers that tend to trace the development of pop music in America are not always presented in historical order, so that confusion results if you try to trace events too closely. Walk Hard in specific gets a lot of mileage out of satirizing the biographical pictures about pop music legends Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. The specific model is the recent Johnny Cash film Walk the Line (2005). Walk Hard satirizes the attempt of Walk the Line to explain Johnny Cash through traumatic events involving his brother's death and his difficult relationship with his father. There are numerous parallels between Dewey Cox and Johnny Cash. Like Cash, Dewey Cox abuses drugs, is unhappily married to an unsympathetic first wife, ignores his children, and has affairs. (Dewey is outrageously indifferent to his family. He loses count of how many children he has (22), and when his oldest son shows up at his beach house one day and asks him to play catch, Dewey asks the boy what his name is. At one point he's in a reverse custody battle—one of his ex-wives is trying to force him to take custody of his children. When his first wife finds out he has married a second wife and reminds him that marriage to more than one person at a time is a crime, he asks whether the fact that he is famous excuses him.)

Ray (2004) also seemed to suggest that the death of a younger sibling had an impact on the singer Ray Charles' talent. Instead of blindness, Dewey Cox is afflicted with an inability to smell.

Walk the Line and Ray are not bad films. They're entertaining, they have merits, and their attempts to link the careers of their main characters to events early in their lives are at the least reasonable. This is not to say that good films can't be satirized, and Walk Hard effectively uncovers the clichés and hackneyed formulas that govern how we think and talk about the lives of famous people.

Walk Hard makes fun of the very notion of a celebrity career—a famous singer's rise from obscurity to early fame and then the long slow decline punctuated by occasional comebacks and appearances on television shows and in the scandal sheets. Walk Hard shows us a parody of the famous 1968 Elvis Presley comeback special. (The special was in fact a genuine triumph for Presley that for a time revitalized his career). We see Dewey in his own generic 1970s era television show similar to ones that featured singers such as Glen Campbell and Sonny and Cher (together and separately) and the Everly Brothers and many others. Such shows took formerly stellar talents (and some less than stellar) and diluted and homogenized and commodified them for middle-brow audiences—often with the full cooperation of the stars themselves—this explains Elvis Presley's film career.

Towards the end of the film as Dewey Cox grows older the satire becomes gentler and at times seems almost to disappear. In a final scene, after a two decades absence from performing, Cox appears on a tribute show and performs his final song—a full orchestra and choir back him up. It's an absurdly beatific moment. The song is about how after a profligate life of misbehavior and drugs and women he has discovered the importance of family and friends. It's a deliberately saccharine song, and the first time I watched the scene I missed the fact that the intent is indeed satirical. Although the song is genuinely terrible, everyone seems to love it. Coming to the end of his life with an redemptive understanding about family and friends, Cox completes the arc of celebrity, corruption, and salvation that we all want to impose on celebrity careers. The fact that he dies on stage three minutes after completing the song just drives the point home.

In the tribute show, Lyle Lovett, Jewel, and Jackson Brown appear to sing a version of "Walk Hard"—their careers are not exactly flourishing either—is this irony?

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