Is there a better movie than Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? It’s a fair question. There are lots of movies out there, some of them pretty good. Almost all of them made more money than Walk Hard. Many of them won more awards. But are they better, really? Better than Walk Hard? I don’t know, man. I’ll go as far as “as good as Walk Hard,” but I don’t think I can get to “better.”
There’s no great reason to be talking about Walk Hard right now. The film — a parody of music biopics, written by Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow and starring John C. Reilly as Dewey — came out in 2007, 13 years ago, so there’s no major anniversary to tie this to. And it wasn’t a big hit. It was the opposite of whatever a big hit it is. It earned $20 million at the box office against a $35 million budget which, and I am admittedly no great mathematician, seems bad. The whole reason this article exists is because Walk Hard is awesome and I think more people should talk about that more often. Sometimes that’s enough. It should be, at least. It is today.
The time has come to talk about Walk Hard.
1. The beginning is as good a place as any to start. Let’s jump right in. The following things happen in the first 10 minutes of Walk Hard:
— In a flashback, a young Dewey accidentally chops his more talented brother in half during a barnyard machete fight (“Dewey, I’m cut in half pretty bad”), the doctor is unable to save him (“This was a particularly bad case of someone being cut in half”), and their father shouts a refrain that will come up a number of times in the movie and be the key to Dewey’s entire trajectory (“The wrong kid died”)
— A six-year-old Dewey picks up a guitar for the first time and proceeds to play a shockingly good blues song (“I done a bad thing / Cut my brother in half”) that impresses a group of skeptical blues musicians
— Dewey, now a sophomore in high school and portrayed by a fully adult John C. Reilly, plays a sweet little song called “Take My Hand” at a 1950s-style talent show that causes the teens in the audience to revolt and rebel as though Satan himself was shredding on the stage
— To drive this home, a reverend shouts “This is the devil’s music!” and is immediately cold-cocked from his blind side by a sweater-clad student
This isn’t even everything. There are a legitimate five or six laugh out loud moments packed in here, which is more than some movies have in their entire runtimes. There’s something to be said for hitting the ground running, for coming in hot. Walk Hard comes in like the surface of the sun. Find me a funnier visual than a child getting chopped in half with a machete and then saying “I’m cut in half pretty bad” as the top half of his body sits on the ground of a hay-covered barn. This is an honest challenge.
2. The cast of Walk Hard is a straight-up Murderer’s Row of comedic talent. John C. Reilly as Dewey, Kristen Wiig as his neglected first wife, Jenna Fischer as the sultry woman who woos him away, Tim Meadows and Chris Parnell in his band, cameos galore, with everyone from Eddie Vedder and Ghostface Killah as themselves to Jack White as Elvis Presley. The Beatles scene gets its own section in a minute because great things deserve solo recognition. And his parents are played by Raymond J. Barry and Margo Martindale, two perfectly cast character actors who would later go on to play antagonists on Justified. (Discussion topic: Would Walk Hard be better with a singing Walton Goggins in there somewhere?) (Trick question. Of course it would have.) Just a non-stop parade of familiar faces in small roles that fit like a glove or fit terribly, both of which are funny. The latter might be funnier, actually, in large part because Dewey does this thing where he always calls historical figures by their full names, which results in little bits of gold like him saying “Thanks, Buddy Holly” to a person who is very clearly Frankie Muniz. It’s the best.
3. Dewey’s path to stardom touches on so many kinds of music and so many biopic tropes. It’s incredible, especially when you realize the whole movie is barely 90 minutes long. There’s pop, blues, and rock, much of it stolen from black artists in hilarious and painfully accurate ways. (The best example being, of course, Dewey playing a song titled “You Got to Love Your Negro Man.”) There are references to like a dozen musicians and eras: Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, trippy LSD acts, Sonny and Cher, etc. Again, all of it in 90 minutes. Walk Hard is the best possible proof that my long-held “no movie should be longer than two hours” belief is correct. If this movie can skewer 50 years of music history and an entire genre of film in an hour and a half, there’s no reason a Transformers movie should clock in over 150 minutes. Tighten it up.
4. POP QUIZ: What do you get when you take Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, and Justin Long and have them do cartoonishly bad Liverpool accents in a tent? ANSWER: A pretty good scene in a movie.
I’ve chosen to post the extended version of the scene here instead of the version that’s in the finished movie. Some might argue that this is the decision of a hypocrite, seeing as I just ranted about movies being too long. In my defense, it’s good and I don’t have to explain myself to you. I could watch a solid 30 minutes of this. I could watch 30 minutes of Paul Rudd as John Lennon repeatedly saying things like “We, the Beatles, from Liverpool…” and cramming song titles into the dialogue. The whole scene is so stupid and perfect, such an egregious waste of time and resources that it becomes iconic. Make a whole Beatles movie like this. Do a 10-episode miniseries. I am barely joking.
5. Speaking of things that are stupid and perfect, ladies and gentlemen, Tim Meadows.
How great is Tim Meadows? In this movie specifically, yes, of course, but also just in general. Have you ever seen a bad Tim Meadows performance? I don’t think I have. And watch all the scenes again. Watch his delivery as he says “you don’t want no part of this” over and over. Watch him give the worst anti-drug PSAs in history. Which one is your favorite? They’re all good, so it’s hard to choose. I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. I’ll tell you mine while you think. It’s the cocaine one. The marijuana one is probably more famous and gets to the hypocrisy of the stigma around the drug, but the face Meadows makes when he says “It turns all your bad feelings into good feelings. It’s a nightmare!” always gets me.
6. The last two sections aside, I think my favorite part of Walk Hard is when Dewey goes through his dark period, which you can easily spot with a little help from the man himself.
Between this and the “MORE BLANKETS! LESS BLANKETS!” scene in rehab, I’m not sure there’s ever been a better depiction of an artist’s struggles committed to film.
7. This movie probably works out fine if the songs don’t play well. There’s too much good stuff in there. I know this is true because I got all the way up to number seven without even bringing them up. But we’ll never really know for sure because, guess what, the songs play well. All of them, starting with the title track and moving to genre-appropriate numbers like “Guilty As Charged,” but especially when it comes to “Let’s Duet,” Dewey’s first song with Darlene and the one that leads him down the path of adultery.
It’s catchy and fun and slammed wall-to-wall with blatant sexual innuendos. The song was written by Charlie Wadhams, who elaborated on the process a bit in a must-read oral history at The Ringer:
The “Let’s Duet” one [cowritten with Benji Hughes], that was probably the most fun one to do. I sat around with a piece of paper trying to write every sexual word or phrase or slang that I could think of. And the first one that came to me, I think was that first line, which is, “In my dreams you’re blowing me … some kisses.” So from there it was like, “How do I match that level of humor?” I gotta keep that kind of funny going on throughout the whole song.
Imagine thinking of that line on-purpose and getting to put it in a movie. I choose to believe confetti fell from the sky spontaneously as soon as he wrote it down. Which would have been nice. He probably needed some time to think of how to equal it and “cleaning up a mess of magic confetti” will buy you at least half an hour.
8. It’s been said before — and alluded to by me already in this very article — but it’s worth saying every time Walk Hard is mentioned: This movie ruined the music biopic as we know it, in the best way possible. It does such an exacting and thorough deconstruction of the entire genre that it’s impossible to watch the originals without thinking of Walk Hard. Go watch Ray after watching this movie. Go watch Walk the Line. Go watch Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, which both came out a decade after Walk Hard and still got parodied retroactively. I don’t know if there’s a higher compliment you can give to satire. I’m fairly certain I don’t have one. It’s like when you watch a really good episode of Documentary Now — “Co-op” or “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” being the best examples — and then try to watch the full-version it was based on. The difference is, again, those take aim at a single target, and Walk Hard goes after the entire herd. There should be film classes taught about this movie. You should be allowed to major in it. It would be at least as valuable as a degree in, say, Communications.
9. It’s worth noting here, if for no other reason than because Popstar rules and I want to talk about it, that Popstar — The Lonely Island’s music biopic parody that came out in 2016 — is also a perfect movie. It’s infuriating that neither of these had anything resembling box office success. Huge bombs, both of them. But so good. You could do a whole lot worse on some rainy Saturday than setting up a Walk Hard/Popstar double bill on your television. They compliment each other so well, too, with the first covering music from the 1950s to maybe the 1980s and the latter focusing on the social-media-heavy fame of music from about 2010-2020. I would pay full price — for good seats — to see a Dewey Cox / Style Boyz concert. I want to see John C. Reilly do the Donkey Roll, in character as Dewey Cox, live, in person. I am barely joking about this either.
10. Let’s close out with a helpful parenting lesson from Dewey Cox’s father, something useful to all new dads out there trying to figure things out in these trying times.
Walk Hard is a good movie.