The 'Walk Hard' Effect: Filmmakers Credit John C. Reilly Comedy for Unconventional Biopics

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
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The satirical biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story didn’t appear to make much of a cultural impact after when it came out in 2007. The Christmas-week release fizzled at the box office, not even cracking the Top 100 in a year when other comedies, like Knocked Up, Juno, and Superbad, laughed their way to big-time bank grosses.

Walk Hard has found a faithful following on home video, though, and the John C. Reilly-starring spoof has apparently affected the craft of some notable folks in Hollywood who set out to make biopics of their own. Within the last week, both Oscar-winning Steve Jobs scribe Aaron Sorkin and Miles Ahead actor-writer-director Don Cheadle have credited Walk Hard to explain why it was important to shape their recent biographical films unconventionally.

Directed by Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher), who co-wrote the screenplay with producer/hitmaker Judd Apatow (see: Knocked Up, Superbad), Walk Hard came two years after the 2005 Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which inspired the title and narrative framework for Walk Hard (2004’s Ray also being a heavy influence). Reilly’s Dewey Cox, meanwhile, was an amalgam of multiple artists, many of who have gotten the actual movie treatment, including Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and Brian Wilson.

The film takes aim at every music biopic cliché in the book: Dewey is born into a hardscrabble childhood in the Deep South; his brother is killed as child (cut in a half with a machete, to be exact); he becomes physically handicapped… when he loses his sense of smell; his family doubts his musical aspirations; he catches a lucky break to fill in for a headliner at a show and gets immediately noticed by record-label suits; his first hit becomes a hit almost instantly (well, 35 minutes after he records it); his newfound fame leads him down a dark path to drugs; he crosses paths with all the legends; he treats everyone around him like crap and cheats on his wife (Kristen Wiig) with a new backup singer (Jenna Fischer); he does even harder drugs, gets arrested, and hits rock bottom before a spiritual reawakening leads to the recording of his masterpiece. As an older man, he recouples with his (second) wife and rediscovers what really matters in life. And of course, the film ends with footage of “the real Dewey Cox.”

“What Austin Powers did for James Bond, Dewey Cox does for every music legend whose life story has been adapted for the screen,” wrote Trunkworthy. “Every winter the prudent among us get a flu shot in order to soldier though the [awards-baiting biopic] season more or less intact… As far as we know, the 2007 comedy is the only thing that is proven to help you survive an equally insidious malady: Seasonal Biopic Disorder.”

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Michael Fassbender in ‘Steve Jobs’ (Universal)

Steve Jobs is not a music bio — though the late Apple icon did give us the iPod — but the comedy weighed heavily on screenwriter Sorkin as he planned its structure. “I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was write a biopic,” Sorkin told Vulture about the film, which is told in three acts, all set in real-time in the lead-ups to monumental Jobs tech presentations. “There’ve been some great biopics. But that structure is so familiar to us that it’s been lampooned in other movies — Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s just not what I wanted to do here.”

Miles Ahead, which debuted earlier this month at the New York Film Festival, is a music bio, chronicling the life and times of jazz great and king of cool Miles Davis. But the film has been called an “anti-biopic” for rejecting conventions, instead formatted with “freeform riffs” that befit the trumpeter’s musical stylings. Cheadle, who not only stars as Davis but directed and co-wrote the script with Steven Baigelman, also told Vulture that he had “no interest in making a biopic” because a viewing of Walk Hard scared them away from the traditional approach: “It’s just terrifying because you’re like, 'That’s every trope, tha’s everything that’s ever used in a biopic,’” he said.

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Don Cheadle in 'Miles Ahead’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Its not like Jobs and Miles are necessarily rewriting the rules of the genre in the wake of Walk Hard. Perhaps the most unconventional biopic of them all, the Todd Haynes-directed I’m Not There, which features six different actors depicting Bob Dylan (including Cate Blanchett and a black teenage actor, Marcus Carl Franklin), opened in theaters two weeks before Walk Hard. And Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad, who cast two different actors (John Cusack and Paul Dano) to play Beach Boys singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in this year’s acclaimed drama, regrettably bucks the Walk Hard trend: “I hate to break the string, but, no, I never saw that movie,” he told us last week. “But that’s probably why I didn’t see it. It would’ve scared me, too.”

Still, you’ve got to applaud Walk Hard for being a catalyst that helped altering the approaches of biopic filmmakers in the eight years since its initially unheralded release, whether it sparked what not to do, creatively, or just purely induced fear. Steve Jobs and Miles Davis are both commonly called “game-changers” in their respective fields. Who would’ve thought Dewey Cox would earn the same rep?

Steve Jobs is now in theaters. Miles Ahead is expected to open in 2016.

Watch the 'Steve Jobs’ cast talk about breaking the rules of the biopic: