Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Johnny O’Cash: Walking Hard in the Emerald Isle

I’m just back from a glorious but slightly soggy trip to Ireland, which may be one of the wettest places around. As we rambled from Kilkenny to Kinsale to Killarney, I kept looking for opportunities to hear traditional Irish music. We lucked out at Kyteler’s, a 650-year-old pub whose much-wedded first owner, Dame Alice, left town in a hurry after being accused of witchcraft, so they say. At Kyteler’s we were entertained by two talented buckos who deftly performed on guitar, banjo, mandolin, Irish drum, and wooden flute. But at one point they took a small detour from Ireland to do a goofy parody of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

That was fun. But from Dublin to Galway, Irish musicians seem to have traded in their jigs and ballads for “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I guess the wearin’ of the green is passé these days, and everyone wants to be the Man in Black. What made this doubly ironic for me is that I’ve been thinking a lot about movie biographies of artistic icons. Not long ago I finally caught up with the 2007 John C. Reilly spoof, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. And on the plane to Europe I chanced to revisit Joaquin Phoenix portraying Johnny Cash in one of the better recent biopics, Walk the Line (2005). Seeing these two films almost back-to-back reminded me how easily the conventions of the biopic can turn the serious into the silly.

Walk Hard (co-written by the ubiquitous Judd Apatow) is an uproarious mash-up of Walk the Line and Ray, both films about musical geniuses that feature tortured childhoods, troubled adulthoods, and lots and lots of drugs. At a recent biographers’ conference, one expert’s advice for writing a biopic was to avoid trying to cover a HUGE swath of someone’s life. But both Walk the Line and Ray aim to be fairly comprehensive. Like Walk the Line, Walk Hard starts with its hero on the brink of going onstage to play a life-changing concert. As his audience becomes increasingly restive, he ponders what has led him to this point. FLASHBACK TO EARLY CHILDHOOD. In Walk the Line, we see the tragic death of young Johnny’s pious brother, fueling his father’s fury that “the devil did this. He took the wrong son.” This key plotpoint becomes ludicrous in Walk Hard, where young Dewey accidentally cuts his brother in half with a chainsaw, and his dad spends the rest of the film bemoaning that “the wrong kid died.”

There follow in both films a string of fairly standard biopic clichés, including the breakthrough recording session where the man in charge scoffs at the hero’s conventional song stylings, prompting him to launch into a brand-new style that announces the arrival of a unique talent. (Amazing how those back-up players always manage to catch on in the knick of time!) Other familiar tropes include walk-on roles for soon-to-be-famous artists of the era, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Also: radically changing hair and clothing as the years go racing by. A few of Walk Hard’s most amusing moments don’t appear in Walk the Line, but they will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a biopic or two. I’m thinking of young Dewey’s lightning-fast progression from picking up his first guitar to proving himself a virtuoso. And of course there’s Dewey’s performance at his junior high talent show: within seconds the adults are outraged, and all the kids are on their feet, grooving to the music.

Just like the good people of Ireland, when they hear the music of Johnny Cash.


  1. I hope we will be reading more about Ireland - it's wild that the musicians have seized on Johnny Cash. I enjoyed Walk the Line, but skipped Walk Hard. I might check it out though, since you seem to have enjoyed it.

  2. "Walk Hard" is a great airplane movie -- it's silly and deliberately predictable, and there's no problem if you get distracted by someone trying to serve you orange juice in a plastic cup. I got a kick out of the way characters are constantly referring to one another by their full names -- e.g. "Well, that's not right, Dewey Cox!" and "So glad you said that, Buddy Holly" -- so that the audience doesn't miss a thing. I'm not sorry I didn't shell out to see this in theatres, though.