Childhood tragedy and attendant guilt feelings. A big career-defining concert followed by a flashback of everything that went before. Adults amazed by early evidence of extraordinary talent and feel for music. Tragedy and loss to overcome. A first wife who complains that he does not spend enough time with the family. The big chance. The amazed audience. The amazed recording studio engineer. The amazed recording industry executives. Success montage. Falling in love with the second wife montage. Encounters with musical legends and a mass murderer. Montage about what VH1 “Behind the Music” calls “the long descent into drugs and alcoholism” and the Oscar-ploy detox scene. Then there are those other humiliating descents: the 70’s variety show, the 80’s roller disco, the pet monkey and giraffe. This faux biopic was made by people who lovingly watched every single film from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to “Ray” and “Walk the Line” and then, just as lovingly, skewered them.
As the movie begins, adoring fans are waiting. The theater is ready. But his long-time band member Sam (Tim Meadows) says, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life” before he goes on stage. It will conveniently take just the running time of a feature film to tell the story.
Dewey (John C. Reilly) thinks back to his childhood, bathed in golden light. “Ain’t nothing horrible going to happen today!” he and his classical pianist brother shout merrily as they run off to play in a series of increasingly hazardous situations. When tragedy finally strikes, Dewey’s brother tells him he will have to be “double great” and Dewey’s father tells him that he will never be a quarter of what his brother was. Dewey is so traumatized he loses his sense of smell. We next see him at age 14 in the high school talent show. His music provokes the kids to get up and dance – and make out. A few quick scenes later, Cox has been thrown out of his home, stunned the audience in a club, married his first wife, and made his first hit record.
It is all done with such conviction and attention to detail that it is possible to forget for moments at a time that this is not the real thing. Slacker scribbled-on-a-cocktail-napkin mishmashes like “Scary Movie” think that referring to something is just as good as making an observation about it, but “Walk Hard” is a spoof with wit as well as heft. Sometimes it hits home just by having someone on screen just say explicitly what is going on: “This is a dark time period.” “People come here to dance erotically!” Sometimes it just repeats the time-honored tropes (“You don’t want no part of this,” Sam says when Dewey sees him using drugs, “We never get to see you!” says his first wife, “I’m so cold!” says Dewey in detox) and sometimes it exaggerates them (the “suits” from the record business are Hassids named Mazeltov and L’Chai’m, the first wife keeps turning out babies like cars on an assembly line). Dewey encounters Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Charles Manson, and there are cameos by real-life stars, including the Temptations, Ghostface Killah, Lyle Lovett, and Eddie Vedder. A high point is Dewey’s psychedelic transcendental mediation lesson with the Beatles, featuring Paul Rudd as John Lennon, Jack Black as Paul McCartney, Justin Long as George Harrison, and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr. It also has the funniest dirty song (or possibly the dirtiest funny song) ever recorded on film.