Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 1; L- 7; S/N -8. Running time: 1hour 36 min.

and let us make a name for ourselves
Genesis 11:4b

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
Luke 15:7

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

Pa Cox again tells 14 year-old Dewey, The wrong son died.

2007 Columbia Pictures

This is a funny parody of the typical Hollywood biography of a musical star, and of Walk the Line and Ray in particular, though the tunefulness of the mock songs is so good that it will also remind you of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. Unfortunately director Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow’s over-indulgence in foul language and gratuitous nudity (more on this later) make this unsuitable for any but an adult audience, which is too bad. John C. Reilly, a great “second banana” actor finally stepping into the center ring of this circus of a movie, portrays the fictional singer Dewey Cox who rises from rural poverty in the South to become a star and then falls and rises several more times in his meteoric career spanning several decades .

Dewey’s story is depicted in a series of flashbacks book ended, as that of Johnny Cash’s was in Walk the Line, by showing the star waiting to perform his act, in this case at a “Lifetime Achievement Award” ceremony. As in Ray, we are taken back to the South of the mid-1940s where Ray, I mean Dewey and his brother Nathan romp and play on the run-down family farm, both of them displaying incredible talent in music. When the two engage in a mock duel with machetes, Dewey accidentally slices his brother in half. Still talking, Nate’s top half on the floor tells him that now Dewey will have to achieve greatness for both of them. Ma Cox (Margo Martindale) forgives her son, but Pa Cox (Raymond J. Barry), always favoring Nate, declares, like Mary Tyler Moore’s mother in Ordinary People, “The wrong kid died.” This will become a mantra for the old man, regardless of what Dewey achieves later on.

The broken-hearted Dewey quickly learns to play the blues from a couple of old black musicians, and then, when in high school he and his band discover at a talent show that their version of rock music turns on their fellow teenagers to sexually charged dancing. The pastor in the audience yells that they are playing “The Devil’s music.” Protestors, including Pa Cox, picket whenever Dewey plays. At the tender age of 14 Dewey, unable to live with his father, leaves home to seek his fortune, taking with him his 12 year-old girl friend Edith, whom he marries, and is soon obeying the Biblical command to be “fruitful and multiply.” Part of the humor in this sequence is that the adult John C. Riley and Kirsten Wiig play the juvenile characters, rather than younger stand-ins.

Working as a janitor at an African American jazz club, Dewey finally gets his opportunity to play when the band leader injures himself and cannot play. Displaying a mixture of incredible naivety and daring, Dewey sings a song he has written, “(Mama) You Got To Love Your Negro Man.” At first the skeptical all-black audience reacts hostilely to this white man singing such a song, but its infectious beat and tune soon rouses them to their feet as they dance seductively to it. It just so happens that three “Jews” from a big record company are present scouting for new talent, and they quickly sign Dewey to record his song. The “Jews,” all wearing the long black coats, beards and side locks of Orthodox Jews, are a hilarious reflection of the all-too-real prejudice that “Jews” control the entertainment industry in general, and the record industry in particular.

Dewey is soon launched on his career, but poor Edie is left to care for their increasing number of children. She had been trying to discourage him from following his dream, preferring that he get a real job and stay home to help care for the family. At one point before he is discovered she tells him that she believes in him, followed quickly by the assurance that he will fail. Little wonder then, that like Johnny Cash, Dewey will find love elsewhere, in his case in the new backup singer, Darlene Madison Cox (Jenna Fischer). She, however, like June Carter, is very pious, and although they come close to consummating their desire for each other, Darlene refuses until they are married. Dewey, conveniently forgetting Edie, weds and beds her, but their bliss is soon interrupted when Edie arrives on the scene. Dewey loses both his firdst and his second wives.

On the road the singer mingles with the likes of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Elvis Presley, Lyle Lovett, and eventually, in India, the Beatles. Again, Dewey shows his naivity when during their exchange of compliments, he tells them, “You’re almost as good as The Monkees!” There are a funny series of scenes in which Dewey stumbles upon Sam (Tim Meadows), the drummer in his band, trying a new drug with a bevy of girls. Sam always warns him away, but Dewey tries the drug any way, all this eventually, as in Ray Charles’ case, leading to Dewey’s arrest and incarceration, and frequent stints in a rehab center. There is also the repetition of Dewey venting his rage and frustration upon a hapless bathroom sink, which he tears away from the wall and smashes upon the floor.

For me the funniest episode, maybe because I had seen recently the zany, decidedly unclichéd Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, was Dewey’s protest period, shot appropriately in black and white. Before adoring crowds he sings songs that contain such lyrics as, “mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum…fairy teapots mask the temper tantrum/O’ say can you see ’em…stuffed cabbage is the darling of the Laundromat…” and “The mouse with the overbite explained…” Baffled listeners stand around asking “What does this mean?” but Dewey doesn’t care, nor do they. He champions the oppressed and the down trodden, focusing especially upon midgets and “short people.”

It is too bad that the depiction of full frontal nudity, including some close-ups of penises, will make the film unsuitable for youth, and unacceptable for most church-related folk, because it is a delightful study of the cult of musical celebrity in our culture. Most of the R-rate elements, including the frequent use of the “F” word are gratuitous, this due probably to Judd Apatow who over-indulged his taste for sex in the teen film Superbad. (Freudians will have a ball analyzing all the sex symbols in the film, such as the way Dewey and Darlene lick their ice cream cones.) As you can tell by the length of this review, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, even while being upset by its juvenile tendencies. Be aware of what you are getting into if you decide to see this film, and even more careful before taking a group.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What clichés from the musical biography picture do you see?

2) What genres of music does Dewey pass through? How did you like the songs—some of them pretty tuneful? (And one even nominated for a Golden Globe Award!)

3) What film did the animated sequence in the LSD section remind you of?

4) Each time Dewey says in the rehab scenes that he is a changed man. But is he really? How does our faith suggest that our good intentions to change ourselves are not enough? What (or who) can really bring change that lasts?

5) Although played for laughs, the constant scenes of the father favoring the deceased son, is a
real concern for many siblings. Have you encountered this? If you are a parent of more than one child, how have you guarded against the damage that favoritism can cause in a family?

6) What insights does the concluding song “It’s a Beautiful Ride” provide, such as “And then in the end it’s family and friends” ?