Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pop Culture 101: Today's Class - WALK HARD

What better way to celebrate the holidays than to have another lesson in pop culture provided again by Judd Apatow and his cronies? Their new movie, WALK HARD, follows the trajectory of a dramatized career overview and hits many familiar targets so it's a perfect professor for our forum. First up - A review of said film: 

(Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2007)

Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) now joins the ranks of The Rutles as well as the Christopher Guest cinematic concoctions Spinal Tap and The Folksmen: that is fictitious musical entities created not just to satirize specific artists or styles but an entire sweep of eras and cultural contexts. Of course it's obvious by the title alone that the chief model of mockery here is WALK THE LINE - the fine but formulaic Johnny Cash biopic. 

The riffing on the tried and true formula of the modern music biopic (THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, LA BAMBA, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, THE DOORS, etc.) is the name of the game here and for the most part it's well played. From his meager beginnings, oh you know the story - he grew up on a farm with a stern father (Raymond J. Barry) and a loving doting mother (Margo Martindale) and a brother (Chip Hormess - later played as a ghost by Jonah Hill) who he accidentally cut in half with machete, Cox discovers the blues and quickly becomes a star with his hybrid brand of jukebox glory. 

Just as quickly he is turned on by his drummer (Tim Meadows) to marijuana - "it's not habit forming!" then over the years every other drug known to man. Also just as fast he meets the woman of his dreams - back up singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer from the US version of The Office). He marries her before divorcing his first wife - the nagging Kirsten Wiig (SNL) and when found out is left by both women. This ushers in his dark period and we know this because Cox exclaims "this is a dark fucking period!"

So I need not go on plotwise - from darkness to redemption, you get the picture. John C. Reilly carries the movie wonderfully - his singing on the sharp song satires is very strong, his wide-eyed airhead gusto is authentic, and his delivery of lines like "I'm locked in a custody battle right now. Custody is being enforced upon me which I don't think is right" is dead on.

WALK HARD is very amusing but not roaringly hilarious - the tickling my funny bone got amounted to a series of chuckles though they were plenty enough to keep me smiling. I appreciated its tone and take on the smart-dumb kind of comedy, one that has more heart than those the smarmy scatological joke-a-minute SCARY MOVIE series that's for sure.

One of many running jokes is that there isn't any subtext - everything is said out loud like in these random lines: 

"Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays." 

"The '60s are an exciting and important time."

"That was early Dewey, this is middle Dewey." 

WALK HARD continues Apatow's winning streak (yes, I know he didn't direct but he co-wrote produced and it's being promoted as his enterprise) and gives us what we've been waiting for all these years - a full out John C. Reilly showcase (okay, maybe I'm the only one's who's been waiting). Take that, Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE! Eat it, Dennis Quaid in GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! In your face, RAY! Y'all gonna have to stand aside because though he surely won't take home an Oscar for this (and that's a damn shame) I predict that Reilly's lampoon will have a longer lasting effect than their earnest yet often bland biopic offerings. 

So now onto the Pop Culture 101 Schooling.

Warning: Many Potential Spoilers!

Like I said above, of course the life and legacy of the late great Johnny Cash by way of WALK THE LINE provide the film's narrative arc and it's most evident in the first act with Cox's clothes, mannerisms, his first hit record (the title song), and the dead brother all borrowed from the Man in Black.

However the winning over of skeptical African American music purists comes from THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY and Buddy Holly appears briefly played by Frankie Muniz (Malcolm In The Middle). Muniz actually has a more accurate physical appearance than Gary Busey did to Holly in the 1978 biopic and he establishes a Cox tradition of calling celebrities by their full name as in - "I'm awful nervous, Buddy Holly."

The only exception to the full name is Elvis portrayed by Jack White of the White Stripes. The blatant mis-casting is part of the joke here as White does an exaggerated cartoon version of the King's swagger - "look out! I could chop a man in half!" Elvis also had a dead brother - a twin that died at birth and as legend has it haunted him his whole life so there's that too. After his first dance with cocaine (of course provided by Meadows) Cox inadvertenly invents punk rock. Dave (Matt Besser), Dewey's guitarist, protests "ain't nobody gonna listen to music like this. You stand there playing as fast as you can looking like some kind of... punk."

Cox's Dylan period is pretty defined as well - in a bit made to look like mid 60's grainy black and white press conference footage an interviewer even puts forth - "people are saying that your new music sounds a lot like Bob Dylan". Cox responds "well maybe Bob Dylan sounds a lot like me!" We get a few other DON'T LOOK BACK-esque shots of Cox in Bob mode - singing lyrics like "mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum" (written by folk singer songwriter Dan Bern) and another has him wearing the same Triumph motorcycle t-shirt under a mod emblemed dress shirt just like Dylan wore on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited.

During the short time that WALK HARD shared the theatre I work at part-time with I'M NOT THERE (at the end of its run) I noted that both twisted anti-biopics have 2 sets of actors playing The Beatles. They are just briefly seen extras in I'M NOT THERE but they are all name cameos (to some degree) in WALK HARD. Paul Rudd (on the left) plays John Lennon, Jack Black does a horrid yet still aptly amusing Paul McCartney impression, Justin Long (the Mac guy from those commercials) does a passable George Harrison, and Jason Swartzman does an odd constipated clinched teeth take on Ringo Starr's heavy Liverpudlian accent.

After witnessing their bickering Cox remarks "it seems like there's a rift happening between The Beatles." He drops acid with the fab four and has a animated YELLOW SUBMARINE derived hallucinatory experience. "We're the trippy cartoon Beatles" Ringo (I think) says in case we didn't make the connection.

A Brian Wilson descent into madness (complete with paisley attire and Wrecking Crew style accompaniment) follows as Cox attempts to make his highly orchestrated masterpiece that none of his fellow band members understand - i.e. the ill-fated Smile sessions. Inspired by Wilson's outrageous recording methods (right down to the use of barnyard animals for sound effects) and friction with the rest of the Beach Boys, Cox's resulting song - "Black Sheep" is, though ridiculous, a pretty groovy track. A decade later Cox has a TV show which is most certainly based on The Johnny Cash Show. but there's also a Sonny and Cher/Laugh In variety show element to it too.

Cox's version of David Bowie's "Starman" done with an astronaut outfit and dancing space girls is taken from many embarrassing attempts by outdated acts in the '70s to crossover and connect with younger audiences on the small screen. The disco-fied version of the title song also drives the point home. Late-period Dewey has him finding out that his music has been sampled by rapper L'il Nutzzak (Jacques Slade) which is perhaps inspired by Ice-T's defense during the "Cop Killer" crisis of '93 - "When people criticize the lyrics of rap music, I tell them to listen to 'Folsom Prison' - "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." I've never heard any rap song that hard-core." 

In general though it's just a comment on the younguns yet again co-opting the old guard. Lastly let's look at the promotional materials - the poster picture (on the left) is based on the famous "Young Lion" photo of Jim Morrison taken by Joel Brodsky in 1967 (on the right) though the film itself has little DOORS spoofing except in a general 'a rock star gets trashed way'. This is right in line with the posters for THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP - all you have to do feature a large close-up of the goofy looking protagonist and the crowds are sure to flock to the multiplex.

 Don't know if the image of John C. Reilly's mocking mug is going to put bums in the seats but I still find it funny. The advertising campaign for WALK HARD includes a joking attempt to get the film nominated for an Academy Award - as Apatow said "our movie is the dumbest movie to ever beg for an Oscar." Imitating iconic Johnny Cash's famous giving the Nashville music industry the bird pose in an infamous ad in Billboard Magazine*, Cox makes his position well known. 

I do think the soundtrack is award worthy but against such competition as HAIRSPRAY and SWEENY TODD I seriously doubt that it will get any gold. * The shots scanning up a page of Billboard charts to see the artist's record hit #1 - (usually lit up) is a music biopic cliché from Hell! I can't think of a film in the genre in which that doesn't appear. Now I'm sure I've missed many individual pop culture points and just about every trailer or TV spot I've seen has material not in the movie but I thought it was best to just concentrate on what's in the theatrical release. When the DVD comes out I may do a revised edition of this Pop Culture 101 entry.

More later...

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