“It took you assholes this long to figure out I was funny!” — John C. Reilly in the commentary for Walk Hard
When Walk Hard premiered in theaters at the end of 2007, it was a surprise bomb, marking the first failure in the newly-minted Apatow comedy empire. Yet there was something different about Walk Hard from the get go: out of all the movies that Apatow has had a hand in making (Superbad, Talladega Nights, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, etc.), none of them had a credible, Oscar-nominated actor in the lead role (the incredible John C. Reilly). Furthermore, none of his previous movies could have been classified as musicals, either (exception: that famed “Age of Aquarius” sequence from Virgin).
Yet in the heavy drama-riddled Oscar season, a goofy comedy like Walk Hard didn’t really have much of a chance, which really is a shame: despite its goofy, fleeting absurdity (more along the lines of Anchorman than anything else), Walk Hard has a surprisingly warm heart at its center, and though it won’t leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end al a Knocked Up, Superbad, many of its aspects (particularly the songs) wind up sticking around in your head long after the credits have rolled.
Reilly plays Dewey Cox, an average farm kid who accidentally cuts his talented brother in half while playing with machetes one day. Following his brother’s request to be “double great” for the both of them (shortly before he dies), Dewey takes to music, eventually getting kicked out of his own house after his innocuous Buddy Holly-styled ballad “Take My Hand” is mistaken as “devil music” by the town’s church elders. From there, Dewey’s career follows that of Johnny Cash’s very closely, with Cox eventually scoring a major record deal and making hit after hit while being dragged down by drugs, an unsupportive first wife (Kristen Wiig) and a semi-supportive second one (Jenna Fischer).
Along the way, director Jake Kasdan makes sure to riff on every possible music biopic cliché that’s ever existed: Dewey gets estranged from his many (many) children, he inadvertently starts the punk rock movement during one coke-addled rehearsal, falls into a Brian Wilson state of hyper-perfectionism in the studio, and has to go through rehab multiple times. Along the way, he rubs shoulders with Buddy Holly (Frankie Muniz), Elvis Presley (Jack White of the White Stripes), and the Beatles (in a scene with cameos that are best left unspoiled).
He becomes a Dylan-styled folkie, the host of a disco-riddled variety show in the late ’70s, and even has his most famous song (“Walk Hard”) get sampled in the dirtiest rap song you’ve ever heard in your life. Basically, he’s like the wide-eyed Forrest Gump of rock music: touching (and starting) every pop music touchstone that has ever existed.
Of course, the whole thing is ridiculous. Were it any other actor than Reilly, the film would absolutely fall apart: his rock-solid conviction in every single scene is what ultimately carries the movie. By the time he sells out in the ’70s, performing disco versions of David Bowie songs for a canned studio audience, you still wind up rooting for Dewey to overcome and succeed in the end.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Reilly can actually sing, too (remember him in Chicago?). He nails Dylan’s speech patterns down with Blanchett-like perfection on the nonsensical “Royal Jelly”, and the high note he hits at the end of the ’50s pop ballad “A Life Without You (Is No Life At All)” is nothing short of extraordinary. Hell, even his crazed, incomprehensible Brian Wilson experiment (“Black Sheep”, co-written with Van Dyke Parks, no less) is enjoyable … even if Dewey thinks it needs “50,000 more didgeridoos”. It elicits chuckles both high (Dewey brakes at least five more sinks in his movie than Johnny Cash ever did) and low (how many times can you make a “Cox” joke in a single movie?).
Reilly is surrounded by an extraordinary supporting cast (Matt Besser, Chris Parnell, and a scene-stealing Tim Meadows are his loyal bandmates), and that Apatow and Kasdan are well-versed in biopic clichés (for an obvious “Oscar bid”, Reilly winds up playing Dewey from ages 14-80). Some jokes fall flat, a bit of momentum is lost just before the ’70s period kicks in, and the resolution is only semi-satisfying, but it’s still an unabashedly fun comedy.
What’s most astonishing, however, about this “box-office bomb” is that Kasdan and crew still view it as a true labor of love, something that’s reflected in the absolutely overstuffed Walk Hard DVD release. For one, there’s American Cox: The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut, which features a few additional jokes, an extended “Black Sheep” sequence”, and, most significantly, an entire subplot with his ’70s variety show in which he winds up marrying Cheryl Tiegs and beats up Patrick Duffy during a party.
The commentary — with Apatow, Kasdan, Reilly, and executive producer Lew Morton — is pleasant enough: Reilly talks about how he was able to bring in Jack White, Apatow reveals his familial connection to Janis Joplin and even admits how on Anchorman he regrets that “we weren’t just mocking anchors … we were mocking acting“.
And that’s just Disc One. On the second disc — where to begin? It features full-song performances (including a slew that didn’t even make the movie), a special holiday song, an audio portion featuring the original song demos that artists like Marshall Crenshaw submitted for consideration, a “cockumentary” about the man who prominently has his penis on display during an early orgy scene (no, really), a documentary about the making of the film and a documentary about the making of the music for the film (both good). (Pause for breath.)
Extras also include the Apatow-trademarked “Line-O-Rama” (featuring alternate takes of multiple improvised scenes), a plethora of extended scenes (best of all being the complete version of Eddie Vedder’s astonishingly-funny speech at the Lifetime Achievement Awards), a Dewey Cox sausage commercial, yet another documentary about the “legend” of Dewey Cox (featuring knowing and playful cameos by the likes of Jewel, Lyle Lovett, Brad Paisley, Ghostface Killah and John Mayer), a short documentary about the difficulties of filming a live bull (with the remarkable footage to go along with it), and — last but not least — the complete half-hour Comedy Central special “The Last Word”: a mock news-magazine show starring Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman. “The Last Word” features all of the film’s actors in character, improvising along with remarkable dexterity (particularly Matt Besser’s insistence on making up new words to describe Dewey). Needless to say, the abundance of bonus features is almost as fun to wade through as the movie itself.
Of course there’s a silver lining to be found in Walk Hard‘s box-office demise. The flick ran off with two Golden Globe nominations: one for original song (“Walk Hard”) and one for Reilly himself. So don’t worry, John C. Reilly, this was never meant to be a rousing box-office success in the first place. It’s a niche comedy with a readymade cult-audience. Twenty years down the line when you break out into “Guilty as Charged” to a room full of screaming fans that discovered this movie on their own volition, you’ll smile to yourself and know that you made the right move.