“Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays,” explains Sam McPherson (Tim Meadows), as Cox, the legendary country music star gears up for one last live rodeo. Bathed in melodramatic shadow, hand to the wall, head pensively turned down, Cox (John C. Reilly) takes us back to when it all began: His humble farm boy roots; the familial tragedy that defined him; his big break, crest to stardom and fall from grace; and all the women, drugs and vices scattered about as obstacles along the path towards eventual, late-career self-actualization. Does that timeline sound a little familiar? Dewey Cox wasn’t a real guy, but a satirical amalgamation of real artists and the hack movies made about their lives. Meadows’ line of dialogue is now one of Walk Hard’s most iconic; no less incisive now than it was over a decade ago, it’s parroted by those poking fun at modern music biopics and their cookie-cutter style.
So, what happened?
That question continues to plague the minds of many. In a perfect world, it seemed like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—a collaboration between Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow, who worked together on Freaks and Geeks—should have killed the films it set out to parody and their paper-thin structure, recycled time and time again, each instance bequeathing less worthwhile results. Meant to satirize all music biopics, though specifically films of the time like Ray, about R&B legend Ray Charles and, more obviously, James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Walk Hard hit theaters on December 21, 2007. It received mostly positive reviews but was a box office bomb, taking in only $20 million against a $35 million budget. But it’s gained a staggering reputation, one that’s come to a head as music biopics have been enjoying another moment in the sun. Walk Hard’s increasingly resonant presence in pop culture now hangs on the periphery of every music biopic made in its wake. With every new music biopic, at least one person goes viral on Twitter just by questioning why these films continue to be made after Walk Hard put them in the dirt.
But people are still going to see these movies and they do quite well; otherwise, why would they keep getting greenlit? Elvis, directed by Australia visionary Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler as the titular king of rock and roll, is out this week. Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 film about Freddie Mercury and the formation of Queen, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and snagged one for Rami Malek’s questionable portrayal of Mercury. Six months after Rhapsody, Rocketman, about the life of Elton John, hit theaters—the same year that Renée Zellweger would take on Judy Garland in Judy and win an Academy Award herself. Jennifer Hudson starred as Aretha Franklin in Respect; Stardust took a look at the life and times of iconoclast David Bowie, while having none of the rights to any of Bowie’s music. Even funnier, Piano Man, an upcoming Billy Joel biopic, has no rights to Joel’s music, his life story or even his name, prompting obvious comparisons to 30 Rock’s classic “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” storyline.
Back in 2019, Reilly, interviewing for an oral history of Walk Hard, said that “we tried to kill the musical biopic with this movie, and it turns out it’s a very resilient cliché.” Indeed, the article notes that in the reviews of such films that fit the bill (Rhapsody, Rocketman and even Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born), critics couldn’t keep from drawing comparisons to that elephant in the room known as Walk Hard. Even the more inspired, magical realism approach taken with Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman couldn’t help but be sustained, at its core, by the same tropes that befall lesser films. And while Luhrmann’s impending Elvis looks like it aims to strike a similar fantastical inflection, there’s a certain malaise in the general reaction to yet another new music biopic, regardless of the possible ingenuity put it into it.
The thing about these kinds of films, and the very thing that Walk Hard deconstructed so sharply, is that they all follow the same formula: The same tired cliches, the same name-drops and celebrity cameos and origin stories now implicit to every modern American blockbuster. In the attempt to condense decades of an individual’s complex life into a scant few hours, it can seem almost necessary to simplify through tropes. The humble beginning to the big break, the struggle with balancing success, family, love and staying true to oneself while fighting inner demons and indulging in the gluttonous excess of fame, before one reaches an epiphanizing breaking point that catalyzes their gradual return to earth. It’s the type of storyline implicit to most biographical films about a single, influential figure, which all attempt to humanize an icon while paradoxically enhancing their grandeur through the very mythologizing of their lives.
There is only so much creative freedom in these kinds of stories unless a wildly different approach is taken in telling them. For example, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs examined the life of the Apple co-founder through three separate launch events over the span of 14 years. The archetypal, all-encompassing rags-to-riches framework was abandoned. Instead, it favored something more play-like, exposing Jobs’ psyche, his relationship to his work and his family—his confidant Joanna Hoffman, his embittered partner Steve Wozniak, his ex-girlfriend Joanna Hoffman and the daughter they share together—in the context of his behavior and actions in the tense, intimate window of time leading up to each event. It’s far more emotionally resonant than anything in a film like Bohemian Rhapsody, which favors cheap spectacle and hollow sentimentality over reckoning with the more complicated and human aspects of Freddie Mercury’s fascinating life.
Thus, with the fictional tale of Dewey Cox—who found his breakthrough fame with the title song “Walk Hard,” haunted all his life by having accidentally sliced his brother in half with a machete as a child—Kasdan, Apatow and Reilly put the worst impulses of these films through a magnifying meat grinder. Yet they create a more entertaining, satisfying and captivating biographical film than most actual biopics. The same could be said of a film that came out nearly a decade later, 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which put the pop star documentary, rather than the rock icon biodrama, in the hot seat. From the Lonely Island crew (and also featuring Tim Meadows), Popstar chronicles the rise, fall and redemption of rapper Conner4Real, parodying the way these pop docs, like the music biopic, recycle structure and lack any substantial insight.
In a twisted coincidence, Popstar befell a similar fate to that of Walk Hard: Initial commercial failure paved the way for a massive cult following. Nowadays, when people bemoan the current excess of lackluster music biopics, they will often point to both Walk Hard and Popstar as what should have been the rightful double-tap assassination of the genre.
To me, it makes sense why they weren’t. Both failed at the box office and hold niche popularity—like long-running inside jokes rather than a cultural phenomenon. And neither hold a candle in commercial take-in to what films like Bohemian Rhapsody, the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2018 that set all-time records for biopics and dramas, bring studios. Some say they can’t wrap their heads around why the satirical evisceration of Walk Hard could not fell the miraculously sturdy music biopic. But the answer to why such films are doing so well—or, if not always the case (as with something like Stardust), at least why they continue to be made—is very simple.
As with the superhero film, the sequel and the soft reboot, the celebrity origin story is a story that already exists, about a figure the general public recognizes, that requires very little imagination. Their structure might be just as familiar as the faces at the center of them, but it doesn’t matter when they’re making money. We can roll our eyes when Elton John has to think about his entire life before he plays, but he’s still playing.
There’s a scene early on in Walk Hard where Dewey Cox comes up with his signature track. It’s spurred by an in-the-moment turn of phrase he happened to spin, like pure kismet, while arguing with his pre-teen wife, Edith (Kristin Wiig). The sardonic emptiness of the notion to “Walk Hard” becomes a pop culture phenomenon from that simple stroke of genius. But it’s a moment not entirely dissimilar to something like a scene in Respect, which depicts the ordinary situation in which extraordinary magic was made, when Aretha Franklin’s titular, defining track came to be. It’s true, that iconic cultural touchstones can just come about from otherwise mundane creativity—take, for example, the real-life genesis of “Get Back” documented in Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back series, where Paul McCartney’s freestyle strumming evolves into a defining pop tune. And it’s also not to say that “Respect” was not deserving of its place as a hallmark of American history. It has everything to do with that depiction of its creation, which Walk Hard understands so well: A moment of cinematic splendor where inspiration strikes the genius like a cartoon lightbulb appearing over their head. The magic of “Get Back”’s conception is in the mundanity.
Perhaps it’s ironic, in my namedropping The Beatles: Get Back, that Reilly noted something else in that oral history about his interactions with musicians who watched Walk Hard. Despite inane inclusions such as a Hasidic Jew record executive named L’Chaim (played by the late, great Harold Ramis), Dewey’s mom dying from dancing to his music and falling out the window, and Dewey battling in a machete duel with his own father, Reilly felt that these musicians seemed to view his film as a documentary. It’s as if the film was doomed by its own universal specificity; the takeaway from Walk Hard would always be, rather than something like Airplane! (which acted as the Disaster Movie’s final nail in the coffin), a more pronounced embrace of the genre than a demolition. By pulling back the curtain, Walk Hard only revealed a terrible, winning formula that continues to make millions, while the parody itself settles into the dusty groove of a cult classic. Dewey Cox was the wrong kid who died.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.