When does a movie become theater? The easy answer is when it’s adapted a la Hairspray, The Lion King, The Producers and the like.
But there have been rare instances when movies become theater, usually when music is involved. I’m thinking of the rock band Spinal Tap, which, after their mockumentary became a hit, toured like a real band. Same is true of the “folk singers” in the genius Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. I remember going to the Warfield to see the entire cast reassemble, in character, for a concert. The fictional becomes real – or if not real, exactly, then three-dimensional.
During the Mighty Wind show, the New Main Street Singers took the stage, and someone, spotting Parker Posey, shouted out, “Parker, I love you!” Posey didn’t acknowledge the shout in any way, so the shouter re-phrased using her character’s name: “Sissy, I love you,” and Posey, whipped her head around, a big smile on her face, and waved madly at her fan.
Another movie character recently stepped off the big screen for a concert in San Francisco. On Monday, fans and media attended a screening of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from super-hot Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), who co-wrote and produced.
The movie bundles every music biography cliché you can imagine and skewers them all gleefully. The humor is broad, dirty and silly – it’s sophomoric in the smartest way.
John C. Reilly is Dewey Cox, a kid from hardscrabble Alabama who is born to sing. He rises through the ranks – taught by African-American blues and soul men, schooled by peers such as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Drugs and alcohol, of course, play a big part in Dewey’s dark period, and then the ‘60s flower, and next thing you know he’s in India with the Beatles (played hilariously by Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman).
Jenna Fischer of “The Office” is Dewey’s lifelong love, Darlene, and their duet, “Let’s Duet,” is a musical highlight. Music plays a huge part, obviously, but the skill with which the songs are executed (great pastiche songs in all the right styles, with assists from Apatow, director/co-writer Jake Kasdan), Dan Bern and Marshall Crenshaw, among others) is a huge part of the movie’s success.
Reilly is a real singer – you only need to see him perform “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago or hear him duet with Woody Harrelson in A Prairie Home Comapnion to know that – and a sincere and sincerely funny performer. He carries the movie with effortless skill.
I can say with some authority that Reilly is a real singer because, as good as he is in the movie, he was equally as good in person. After the screening on Monday, fans walked down the block to the Great American Music Hall, where the marquee proudly proclaimed, “Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers: The Cox Across America Tour.” (If you think the last name Cox was accidental and won’t be joked about in every conceivable way, think again.)
Reilly performed for about an hour with a four-piece band (he played guitar and harmonica), and he never broke character. He was Dewey Cox, outfitted in a black-and-red bolero outfit seen in the movie when he’s performing “Guilty as Charged.”
Because the song stylings move from ‘50s blues and rock ‘n’ roll to ‘60s folk and psychedelia, Reilly really gets to show off his skills as a singer. He’s a little bit Roy Orbison, which is a great thing to be. His live high notes weren’t quite as pristine as his movie high notes, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm and humor.
The best song in the movie is the title song, “Walk Hard,” though I’m awfully fond of the nearly dirty “Let’s Duet.” Dewey’s posthumous tribute to himself, “(Have You Heard the News) Dewey Cox Died,” is probably something every famous singer/songwriter wishes he/she wrote, and his anthemic plea for the rights of little people, “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” is a hoot.
Reilly is a theater veteran (A Streetcar Named Desire on
Broadway in 2005, Tony nomination for True West opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, lead in the musical version of Marty), and his comfort onstage shows. He’s great onscreen, but in his Dewe Cox guise, he knows how to give good theater.
In the spirit of the film, let me just add that he rocks out with his Cox out.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is in theaters Dec. 21. Here are two trailers. The first is for all audiences. The second is rated R. Choose appropriately.