The ‘Walk Hard’ School of Music Biopic Filmmaking

With the Amy Winehouse movie ‘Back to Black’ now out in theaters, it’s only right to look back at the progenitor of the modern music biopic: Dewey Cox

Getty Images/Columbia Pictures/Focus Features/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

When examining the most influential cinematic figures of the 21st century, a few names rise to the surface: the Joker, Harry Potter, Tony Stark. But in terms of innovation, impact, and influence, real ones know the truth … Cox reigns supreme.

Directed by Jake Kasdan from a script by Kasdan and Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was quietly released in 2007 as a Zucker brothers–esque parody of music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray. But it’s time to accept that the film has transcended its original intentions, becoming the blueprint, nay, urtext, for all films in the genre moving forward.

Who taught filmmakers how to compress a musician’s entire life into an easy, three-act structure of meteoric rise, drug- and alcohol-induced fall, and sober-minded comeback?

Cox.

Who showed audiences that the nuances of an artist’s life are not as important as tracing their entire psychology back to one traumatic event that occurred in their early childhood, typically relating to the death of a sibling or parent?

Cox.

Who’s responsible for Rami Malek’s Oscar and the perception of Bradley Cooper as a try-hard?

Cox.

One can even find a massive dose of Cox in the latest music biopic, Back to Black, in theaters this Friday, which makes the bold choice of celebrating legendary recording artist Amy Winehouse by making a film all about how her life would have been better had she just listened to her shady boyfriend and father.

Yes, nearly 20 years after Walk Hard’s release, the blueprint pioneered by Cox endures, shrink-wrapping iconic artists into a formulaic series of origins, traumas, and resolutions, underscored by carefully curated selections from their song catalog and fronted by a performance pitched almost solely for Academy recognition. (Even John C. Reilly got a Golden Globe nomination.) Because Dewey walked (hard), he forged a path for this type of cinema to run for decades to come.

Here are, in no particular order, the formative aspects of this landmark genre, the golden nuggets that are key for any aspiring filmmaker of a music biopic, and indeed the ones that have been planted in almost every blockbuster music movie of the past 20-ish years.

The Framing Device

Walk the Line opened with Johnny Cash waiting backstage at his Folsom State Prison performance. In a quiet moment of isolation, he is reminded of his childhood growing up near a sawmill as he stares at, of all things, a saw. Subtle, I know. But never fear, for Walk Hard adds an element of clarity, opening with an aged Dewey Cox stoically leaning against the basement wall of a venue as the audience above clamors for his farewell concert. As a stage manager frets that Cox will miss his cue, Sam McPherson (Cox’s former drummer and drug dealer, played by Tim Meadows) patiently assures him, “Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays.”

Such a device has been employed liberally throughout the intervening years, from the more literal homage that opens the James Brown biopic Get On Up, wherein Brown wanders the bowels of a theater haunted by the ghostly sounds of his past, to the looser adaptations utilized in Maestro, Rocketman, and The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, where an aging master gives an interview that happens to sum up all the aspects of their life we are about to see.

Even the four-time Academy Award–winning Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t let Freddie Mercury perform his Live Aid set without a flashback to the events that led him to that very performance.

Tragic Childhood

No music biopic is complete without spending at least 10 minutes with some cherubic younger version of the film’s subject and the awful thing that happened to them. In Walk Hard, it’s Dewey Cox accidentally chopping his brother in half with a machete. For maximum effect, the film should also pin all the main character’s future flaws on this one traumatic event.

See: Get On Up, Judy, La Vie en Rose, Respect


Paternal Disapproval

Otherwise known as “the wrong kid died” syndrome. A disapproving father is key to unlocking more anguish within the film’s subject, as well as providing a decades-spanning conflict that can potentially be resolved in the film’s third act.

See: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Nowhere Boy

Learning the Blues From Neighboring Black Musicians Who Are Completely Chill With the Co-Opting of Their Music by a White Kid

Walk Hard spends some quality time establishing not only that Dewey Cox was influenced by the Black musicians he grew up around, but that he was actually better than them at music! This ensures that the film is able to briefly address the essential contributions of Black artists to rock music while still making sure we stay completely focused on the main guy, who is white.

See: Elvis

Weirdly Affectionate Relationship With Sick and/or Dying Mama

In a performance worthy of an Oscar win or at least a Critics Choice nomination, Margo Martindale plays Dewey’s kindly mother, who suffers from vertigo, falls out of a window dancing to his music, and is crushed by a large radio. A music biopic can still work with the artist’s mother alive and well, as long as the gentle maternal dynamic is there to offset the negligence of the father. (Women are soft and supportive; men are hard and closed off—this is Screenwriting 101.) If said maternal dynamic also veers into a situation where it seems like the main character wants to fuck his mom, so much the better.

See: Elvis

See also: Back to Black, which subs out the mother for Lesley Manville as a kindly grandmother whose death is framed as the main impetus for Amy Winehouse’s drug use.

Debut Concert With Explosive Horniness

The first public performance of the headlining artist must naturally be dramatized as a cataclysmic event shaking the very foundations of society. That’s why Dewey’s performance of the tenderhearted “Take My Hand” triggers dancing in the aisles, violent rebellion, women ripping their tops off, priests decrying sacrilege, vomiting, sexual intercourse, and a full-on mob with pitchforks. Baz Luhrmann could never!

See: All Eyez on Me, Elvis, Straight Outta Compton, and Rocketman (which makes the bold assertion that a performance of “Crocodile Rock” could make people actually levitate!)

Put-Upon First Wife

Every great male artist has a first wife who sits in the front row of his first concert, marries him, bears multiple children, and eventually grows disillusioned with the fact that she has to hold down the fort while her husband is on the road. Bonus points if they can show up at the final performance of the film, as Kristen Wiig does in Walk Hard, and give a “We’ve had our troubles, but you done good, old boy”–type smile.

See: Elvis, Get On Up, Bob Marley: One Love, Maestro, kind of Bohemian Rhapsody (Mary Austin and Freddie Mercury weren’t married, but they did have a serious relationship)

Saying an Inspirational Thing That Then Becomes a Song

Audiences love to see how the sausage gets made and (in this case) how a song gets its title. That’s why Walk Hard set a bold precedent: Dewey Cox constantly spouts phrases that he instantly recognizes as a potential title for his next song. This is, of course, true of “Beautiful Ride,” “Black Sheep,” and “A Life Without You (Is No Life at All).”

See: Bob Marley: One Love, which has Bob ask his housemates the name of the movie soundtrack they’re listening to on the record player, to which they reply, “Exodus!” Also, Respect, in which Aretha Franklin’s sisters repeatedly call her “Re-Re,” which segues seamlessly into the “re-re-re-re-” refrain of the title song, which is, I’m sure, exactly how that happened.

Montages!

Montages of success! Montages of failure! Montages of performing on tour intercut with affairs and drug use!

See: All of these films, but special shout-out to Rocketman, which shows Elton meeting, marrying, and divorcing the same woman over the course of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

Leaning Up Against a Wall in This Exact Pose Before a Gig

See: Elvis

Drugs

It starts when Dewey stumbles into a bathroom and finds Sam McPherson with a gaggle of groupies in a haze of smoke. “Get out of here, Dewey!” says Sam.

“What are y’all doing in here?” asks Dewey.

“We’re smokin’ reefer. And you don’t want no part of this shit.”

Yet even though he’s warned it won’t give him a hangover, that he won’t get addicted, that it’s impossible to OD on it, that it makes sex better, and that it’s “the cheapest drug there is,” Dewey succumbs to temptation, leading him in short order to coke, pills, and LSD. These are, of course, the Logical Next Steps, and as we all know, in a movie such as this, it’s best to eschew nuances of psychology and addiction to frame this lineage of debauchery as the result of That One Time the Character Tried Weed.

See: Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis, Get On Up, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Judy, Rocketman, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday

Jail!

See: All Eyez on Me, Get On Up, Jersey Boys

Rehab!

See: Back to Black, Elvis, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Rocketman, La Vie en Rose

Second Act of Career Involving Wild Musical Experimentation

Inspired by the recording sessions for Pet Sounds and Revolver, Walk Hard spends a post-jail and post-rehab sequence showcasing a period of ambitious sonic exploration. Cox books a vast studio and fills it with a huge orchestra, actual goats, and “an aboriginal chorus.” Stuff like this is good for framing the protagonist as a mad genius, one who’s uncompromising but doing such weird shit that it must be good.

See: The scene showing the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Bohemian Rhapsody, any time Bradley Cooper is conducting in Maestro


Abandonment by the Band

At a certain point, enough is enough, and the band has to break up with their Frontman Who Has Gone Too Far. While Walk Hard frames this as the result of megalomaniacal behavior mixed with drug and alcohol addiction, it’s doubly powerful if it’s also about how the lead singer is gay and how that’s kind of killing the vibe of the band.

See: Bohemian Rhapsody

Sad, Isolated Period in Big House

The band is gone, but the party must continue. And so, our hero must enshroud him- or herself in an exorbitant but isolating location where he or she throws lots of parties but is also super sad.

See: Bohemian Rhapsody again, Elvis, Judy, Maestro, Rocketman

Character Actor Playing Agent/Manager/Producer Who Keeps Showing Up With Worse and Worse Hairpieces and Old-Age Makeup

Before he stormed back onto the scene with Oppenheimer and a brief spell on Twitter, David Krumholtz played Schwartzberg, Dewey Cox’s manager. If Margo Martindale is getting a Critics’ Choice nomination today for playing Dewey’s mother, then Krumholtz is a slam dunk for an AARP Movies for Grownups win for Best Supporting Actor. During the final performance of the film, this character must either be (a) sitting in the audience looking old as shit, (b) dead, or (c) both, as is the case in Walk Hard.

See: Mike Myers in Bohemian Rhapsody, Marc Maron in Respect, Paul Giamatti in Straight Outta Compton, Paul Giamatti in Rock of Ages, and (to an extent) Paul Giamatti in Love & Mercy. Of course, the pièce de résistance: Tom Hanks in Elvis.

“Write One Masterpiece That Is the Culmination of Your Entire Life”

In the final act of his career (and, indeed, of this film), an aging Dewey Cox heeds this advice to write “Beautiful Ride,” which becomes his eventual final performance. Even if you have to remix the timelines, it’s best to end with a big, sappy concert moment like this and, because this is a movie, after all, make sure the protagonist has quickly resolved all of their past traumas before the performance. That way, as in Walk Hard, we can see the repentant father, supportive mother, former lovers, aging and/or dying agents, children, and former bandmates all together celebrating just how special the film’s subject really is.

As Dewey sings, “It’s about the good walk / And the hard walk / And the young girls you’ve made cry … Music! / Flowers! / Babies! / Sharing the good times! / Traveling not just for business! / Accepting your mortality! / This is finally what I’ve learned!”

Mixed messaging is best. Again, Bohemian Rhapsody made Queen’s Live Aid performance a climactic moment of Freddie Mercury’s acceptance that his queerness broke up the band and alienated his friends. And that movie made almost a billion dollars!

See: Live Aid in Bohemian Rhapsody, “Unchained Melody” in Elvis, “Try Me” in Get On Up, the medley in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, “Over the Rainbow” in Judy, “One Love” in Bob Marley: One Love, “Amazing Grace” in Respect, “I’m Still Standing” in Rocketman

Title Cards of What Happened Next

Obviously, audiences are incapable of accepting that a person’s life could extend past the end of the movie about them. They need to know everything that happened next, even if (as the text explains at the end of Walk Hard) “Dewey died three minutes after this performance.”

This is, after all, why we go to the movies: to read random facts about the end of a person’s life printed on a black screen!

See: Literally all of these movies

By now it should be quite evident that Dewey Cox’s story, as told in the totemic work of cinema Walk Hard, is a pioneering force in one of American cinema’s greatest genres. For all those rushing to see the obvious movie event of the year, Back to Black, spare a moment of reflection for the man who set the template for that fine film and all music biopics of its ilk. Spare a moment for the man who walked hard. Spare a moment for Cox.

Kyle Wilson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is happiest when he’s writing about film, television, or his insatiable obsession with Joe Pesci’s performance in The Irishman. His work has appeared at Polygon and Screen Rant and you can follow him at @icanvalk.

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