Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Runner-Ups: The Music of "Walk Hard" (2007)

Scene from Walk Hard
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Michael Andrews
Film: Walk Hard (2007)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Song (2007):
- "Falling Slowly" (Once) *Winner
- "Happy Working Song" (Enchanted)
- "Raise It Up" (August Rush)
- "So Close" (Enchanted)
- "That's How You Know" (Enchanted)

For the sake of posterity, I thought that I would choose two wildly different picks for the first two The Runner-Ups. Where I decided to open by suggesting that Peter Lorre was more than deserving of a nomination, I am here this week with a sort of different pick. To help you better understand the diversity by which I plan to go, I have chosen to tackle director Jake Kasdan's Walk Hard as my second pick. I know that there could be a deserved case for those thinking that John C. Reilly deserved a little more credit for this music biopic satire (myself included). However, I want to focus on a side that seems more criminal to have ignored: the soundtrack.

In all honesty, the movie soundtrack isn't what it used to be. If you look back through history, there's iconic films that have iconic songs stapled onto them. I've seen a few dozen of them just on Best Song alone. While it would be difficult to make this argument for 2007's line-up, which features three deserved nominations for Enchanted, it seems more like a fluke. However, there's something that is missing when voters don't notice the good satirical songs that make Walk Hard not only one of the funniest films of that year, but also one of the catchiest. 

While I have singled out Michael Andrews (he did write majority of the work), there's a handful of writers who made the music what it was. For starters, Reilly's singing is great and makes the faux-Johnny Cash (even sometimes faux-Bob Dylan) stuff work. It not only works as a joke, but there's deeper subtext that just makes it a good song. Sure, I'm not expecting voters to have approved of "(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man" or "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" - which are themselves parodies of how insensitive some songs of the 50's and 60's secretly were. However, there's a lot of value that can be found in the other songs. Yes, some are funny, but they're also immediately memorable.

The predictable pick is the title song, which is itself a parody of "Walk the Line" without saying it is (it is also a phallic joke, as most of the movie is). However, just notice the precision that goes into the production. The guitars aren't making you laugh. Reilly's approach isn't necessarily done for comedic value. All that's there is a genuine song about a man struggling to live his life. Considering that this is the same group who once nominated the far more egregious "Mean Green Mother From Outerspace" and "Ghostbusters" songs, there's no good excuse here that suggests that they don't nominate songs with a sense of humor. In fact, it would likely liven things up a bit. While this isn't my favorite song of the bunch, I think that it would've been an acceptable pick.

Of course, one needs to consider the thing that inevitably impacts judgment more than quality alone. When it was released, Walk Hard didn't do the best at the box office. This was despite Reilly doing live concerts as protagonist Dewey Cox and releasing so many obscure songs in a "Box of Cox" collection. For those who don't like the innumerable Cox jokes, it makes sense why you wouldn't vote for the film in terms of Best Picture or Best Actor. In fact, it's still an uphill struggle to get comedy into the Oscars, despite producer Judd Apatow making a  breakthrough three years later with Bridesmaids. Still, Walk Hard was a parody of the type of films that The Academy awarded with regularity. You can find traces of the Oscar-winning films like Ray and Walk the Line somewhere in here. Still, it is a satire whose unfortunate reality is that it was birthed in a time when satire was considered inferior thanks to the Scary Movie knock-offs.

Still, there's something to writing a song that is a joke but isn't exclusively about telling you the joke. Among the other inventive songs that I didn't expect to see on here is "Let's Duet," which is nothing but sexual euphemisms set to a country beat and sung by Reilly and Kristen Wiig. While it would've been risque for The Academy to have nominated it, I still argue that they're the ones who nominated "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" and thus have no leg to stand on for silly songs. It's a brilliant song if  you aren't in on the joke because the craft allows you think that it's one of those old time songs that were actually unintentionally innuendos after innuendos. 

Finally, I want to address the one song that I feel is criminal for ignoring. While "Walk Hard" and "Let's Duet" were getting more press at the time, I still find something arresting about the song that closes the film. "Beautiful Ride" is meant to be a self-reflective song about Dewey Cox's career. By this point, the satire has bled into earnestness and has come out as something more truthful. It still has those few twists, but it is inevitably that type of song where you get emotional. Reilly's voice is on point as he goes into the cautionary story. It's the kind of song that in a serious film would've easily have been nominated. Instead, it was at the end of a film in a montage that featured a naked man. 

But here's the best part. The song transcends the comedy. With a few line rewrites, you could easily have put this into any of the biopics without a problem. Where the soundtrack is jammed full of songs that I feel are worth more than the film, I think that this one manages to be a sort of parody of magnum opuses while also being its own kind of magnum opus to music biopics. The production is so beautiful that it puts most of the nominees in any surrounding year to shame. Admittedly, it doesn't have the immediate recognizable traits that would put Enchanted into this race three times. However, The Academy hasn't really cared about nominating popular songs for years now. Otherwise, this past year would've had more than "That Spectre Song" and "That Lady GaGa Song." With that said, I'm glad that they nominated diversity, though it's a far cry from even 20 years before in terms of recognizing the impact that music has on film.

I understand that Walk Hard was always bound for cult status. I'm not blaming anyone who thinks it's crazy to expect anything higher about the film. However, its success would've restored some faith in the musical comedy genre more than you understand. Yes, producer Apatow has made other films with worthwhile music, such as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, but it's a dying trend to see comedies with great songs. I'm not saying that Walk Hard would've reversed it entirely, but it would've definitely done something. I don't know which song I would've taken out and, had it been released later, I would be more upset that it didn't get nominated. However, it's still a soundtrack that defies the odds, and I feel reflects a modern day equivalent to the "Why didn't it get nominated?" conversation. 

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