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In 'Walk Hard,' Records Speak For Themselves

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

For those about to mock, Dewey Cox salutes you.

Consider the cover art from the soundtrack to "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," the new John C. Reilly movie that sends up the entire music-biopic genre. There's Reilly as chameleonic rock star Cox, posing for a sepia photo: shirtless, beaded necklace, arms outstretched, his curly hair threatening to become completely unspooled -- just like Jim Morrison in those iconic "Young Lion" photos. (Or, maybe, Val Kilmer in "The Doors.")

But where Morrison had the stone-faced look of a Serious Poet, Reilly is wearing an open-mouth smirk, his eyebrows arched, his head playfully cocked.

Spoof! They did it again.

And again.

And again.

Open the soundtrack and you'll find 16 different Dewey Cox album covers, spanning the fictional singer's supposed career -- from his wide-eyed early-'50s country debut, "Hard Walkin'," to his '60s and early '70s output of psychedelia and protest songs.

The covers make only a fleeting appearance in the movie, as decorative, self-tributary wall art at Cox's Malibu house in the 1970s.

Still, close attention was paid to the creation of the album art, all the better to elevate the level of lampoonery.

"The development of the album art was key," says Jefferson Sage, the movie's production designer. "We wanted them to feel absolutely real." After all, he says: "The secret to making such a spoof is in the sincerity of the presentation."

And so Sage and his creative team researched old albums and musicians "to see what they were doing at various times to identify looks and styles." He met with a group led by writer-director Jake Kasdan to toss out ideas, some more ridiculous than others -- "like maybe Dewey is riding a horse, and the name of the album is 'Ridin' High'!" Sage says. He laughs. "We were just spitballing at that point." (The horse idea was put out of its misery.)

Eventually, the ideas were dumped on graphic designer Steve Samanen, who got busy turning them into actual art.

Here, Sage walks us through the Dewey Cox catalogue, explaining the intent behind -- and, in some cases, the direct inspiration for-- the cover art. (Sage's next project: a Jack Black comedy "about life in biblical times; Jack plays a nomadic figure who bumps into Adam and spends a night with Abraham in his tent." Rock-and-roll!)

"Hard Walkin' "

"A fresh-faced and eager Dewey Cox, flush with the excitement of having a dream realized. This is visually the simplest cover of them all. Everything after this evolves to more complex images, fonts and graphics. This has a naive, simple innocence that we intentionally break

down later."

"It's a De wey Cox Teenager Party"

"Dewey moves into a prolific period when he produces teen rock-and-roll albums. The covers are youth-oriented and tread heavily in the idea of good, clean teenager fun. There is nothing dark about rock-and-roll. Yet."

"Has Anyone Seen Dewey Cox?"

"Dewey has grown up some and become more of a pro. The albums (also including 'Love, Dewey' and 'Hi, I'm Dewey Cox') start to grow more complex visually: The graphic is more striking and colors are more powerful. Also, there are more adult themes inherent in the art and the album titles. With the graphic notion of hiding in plain sight with the viewer's help, 'Has Anyone Seen Dewey Cox?' refers back to Dewey's new lack of honesty and penchant for deception."

"Surf's Up"

"There is nothing in Dewey's background that would make surf music a natural style, so he is really just trying on a new fashion with a surf album. We were quoting the fun, mid-'60s surfing classics. This is more Ventures than the Beach Boys. I grew up with some of those records. They typically featured the ocean and a surfboard of some kind. The trick was getting Dewey onto the surfboard. We shot him in the studio, standing on a box. Dewey is dead center, the type frames him above and below, and the colors are fantastic. It really captures a niche market of rock-and-roll music."

"Sir Ringe the Marshmallow Elephant"

"A completely psychedelic drug-induced image. It references the album art of the day. It's very much drawn from the 1960s pop-art graphic seen in covers by Jefferson Airplane and such."

"I Sing for Those Who Can't"

"A particular favorite of mine. Dewey holds up the hand of a muted Native American. It suggests that Dewey's arrogant self-assumption that he carries the message for the downtrodden relies on his keeping them downtrodden. Rather than giving them their own voice, he will generously sing for them. In retrospect, it's an apt metaphor for so much of the protest movement. To poke fun at this, Dewey is seen in the movie adopting any number of protest causes which are trivial and ridiculous."

"Dewey Cox"

"It's a pretty direct rip-off of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 'Deja Vu.' Brown cover, Western garb; I remember that album very well. It's that costume era in the '60s and early '70s. They'd establish this context, whether it was the West or -- I don't know what. Bands like Gary Puckett & the Union Gap dressed as soldiers! It was their stage uniform but also on their album. This cover is really the only one that so closely copied an existing album."

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