Good musical parody walks a fine line. Play it too broadly and it’s good for a laugh the first time, and then you never want to revisit it again. Who wants to listen to a comedy routine when you already know the punch lines? Play it too subtly and it’s just not that memorable. Why listen to an imitation of serious artists when you can listen to the real thing?
Walk Hard, the soundtrack to the John C. Reilly spoof of musical biopics, gets it just right. Covering a dizzying variety of musical styles, from ‘50s rockabilly through ‘60s folkie protest to ‘70s disco, Reilly manages to come across as both a first-rate clown and a genuine musical talent. It’s not surprising that these songs are funny. What is surprising is how listenable this album remains long after the jokes have run their course.
The movie’s plot, which traces the career arc of the mythical Dewey Cox, allows Reilly a great deal of leeway in the main role. Loosely based on the life of Johnny Cash, Dewey gets to dabble in early rock ‘n roll, country duets, protest music, sixties psychedelia, bloated countrypolitan schmaltz, and the kind of stripped down, hard-won “wisdom” that characterized Cash’s last few albums on American Recordings. And, of course, every licit and illicit relationship and drug known to man. But because this is a spoof of musical biopics in general and Walk the Line in particular, the results are predictably skewed.
Sometimes Reilly plays it strictly for laughs, as on the winking, double-entendre filled “Let’s Duet,” which probably has Johnny and June rolling over in their graves, or on the faux-protest song “Dear Mr. President,” which skewers both aching sincerity and political correctness. But more frequently the results are more nuanced. “Royal Jelly” is a dead-on Dylan impersonation, with impeccable phrasing, imagery borrowed wholesale from the mid-sixties Dylan catalogue, and off-key harmonica work. It is, of course, also utter nonsense, and that’s what makes it delightful. “(I Hate You) Big Daddy” marries Elvis’s hiccup and sneer with an adolescent diatribe about insufferable parents. “Beautiful Ride,” a big, bloated impartation of life lessons, is so cliched that it revels in the absurdity. But not by that much. I can recall too many songs that were almost, but not quite, just like it in the late sixties. And the disco cover of David Bowie’s “Starman” simply has to be heard to be believed, and recalls Bill Murray in all his SNL lounge lizard glory.
And make no mistake, Reilly is a revelation. He has the voice to pull off these disparate styles, and he’s enough of a musical chameleon to make them all more than believable. And really, that’s the charm of this album. Sure, it’s funny. But all of these songs are almost – almost – thoroughly believable. If you don’t listen closely, you’d swear you’ve heard them all before. And that’s the nature of the best parody. Walk Hard cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. You won’t know whether to laugh or to squirm. And that’s what will keep you coming back for more.