As the kind of movie to play in the background while you do holiday stuff, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is to be applauded. At every turn it mocks the biopic form, a genre now so mouldy and bound by convention that they now count as among the worst films still being made. So this counts as fighting the good fight. Good on ya, “Weird Al” Yankovic!
And I know we’ve seen versions of biopic parodies before, such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), but apparently we still haven’t seen enough of them to reject the prestige biopic altogether.
Now streaming on the Roku Channel and written by Yankovic himself with Eric Appel — who also directed — Weird charts Yankovic’s supposed to rise to top international stardom and includes all the ludicrous biopic cliches we’ve seen so often. For example, the tale of the gifted young man whose natural talents are suppressed by his conservative family, especially an angry father, goes back to The Jazz Singer (1927) and the dawn of “talkies.”
But instead of an Orthodox Jewish family fighting for tradition against a pop music–loving son as in The Jazz Singer, Yankovic’s got middle-class 1950s parents living in California, including a murderously raging factory-worker father (Toby Huss) with gruesome tales of regular on-the-job fatalities and a grim determination to get his son to join him on the job site. Then of course there’s the father’s pathological hatred of the accordion, Al’s instrument of choice.
The father’s domestic reign of terror is enabled by a housewifely mother (Julianne Nicholson) who breaks this to her son with June Cleaver gentleness: “Your father and I had a long talk and we agreed it would be best for all of us if you just stop being who you are and doing the things you love.”
But there’s no keeping Al Yankovic’s incandescent talent a secret. He’s invited to a forbidden polka party, which all the cool teens are into. “My father’s gonna kill me!” wails Al, but he’s persuaded by the kids to play a song, displaying his smoking-hot accordion mastery. Everyone is awed. His immense, incredibly niche dream is to sing songs with lyrics he’s made up instead of the original lyrics and, with the help of his mentor, Dr Demento (Rainn Wilson), whose radio show was both an inspiration to the real Yankovic as well as the venue for his first public performances, Yankovic is propelled to superstardom.
Bits of actual autobiography are woven through the film. Al Yankovic’s first accordion really was bought from a traveling salesman, for example, but Yankovic’s father didn’t actually beat the salesman half to death, as in Weird. Shots of the real Yankovic at the end of the film reveal his endearing teenage afro, his actual accordion, his nerdy friends and bandmates, his kindly-looking parents, and so on. It’s very sweet, really.
As Yankovic, Daniel Radcliffe, a longtime fan of Yankovic’s song parodies, wears an impressively large afro, a big ’stache, and a wide-eyed, clench-jawed look of rabid intensity. He’s quite good — and ripped? Good God, Radcliffe must live in the gym.
Even better is Evan Rachel Wood as Al’s supposed girlfriend, Madonna, during the inevitable interlude when Al develops an unmanageable star ego, cuts off his bandmates and true friends, starts chugging alcohol from the bottle, and sinks to the bottom in his personal life even as his career soars. Wood’s Madonna, with her coy smirks, affected sashaying walk, and cutesy “Material Girl” get-ups is so dead-on it reminded me viscerally of how much I used to loathe Madonna, 1980s America, and the whole damn world.
Like most spoofs, Weird is hard to sustain at feature-film length without the humour palling a bit. There are only so many biopic clichés to parody, after all, so a certain tonal repetition sets in. It’s not surprising to find out that the project began as a fake movie trailer, made for laughs by Appel for the Funny or Die site in 2010. Yankovic would run it at his concerts. So many fans asked when the parody biopic was coming out, Appel and Yankovic decided to pursue it as a low-budget movie project.
It’s an endearing little movie, quite funny in spots. There’s a bit I’ll call the Hay Boy joke (“Don’t you know what a Hay Boy is?”) which is genuinely riotous and has a payoff late in the movie that any comic filmmaker might envy.
All of which is to say Yankovic is beloved for a reason. His humorous, self-deprecating attitude toward his modest career achievements — which nevertheless made oceans of money — is adorable, and his lyrics are genuinely clever. Who can forget “Eat It,” his inspired version of Michael Jackson’s monster hit “Beat It”? It was so popular in 1984, it peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, helped along by Yankovic’s shot-for-shot remake of Jackson’s MTV video, starring Weird Al in the Michael Jackson role, as he said, “because of my uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson”:
Don’t wanna argue, I don’t wanna debate,
Don’t wanna hear about what kinda foods you hate.
You won’t get no dessert till you clean off your plate,
So eat it. Don’t ya tell me you’re full,
Just eat it. Eat it.
Get yourself an egg and beat it!
Have some more chicken, have some more pie.
It doesn’t matter if it’s boiled or fried.
Just eat it. Just eat it….
Aware of the song-spoof’s status as an audience fave, Yankovic and Appel created an amusing plot reversal that features Radcliffe’s Al Yankovic composing “Eat It” as his first song with original lyrics, under the influence of LSD-laced guacamole served to him by Dr Demento. It makes him a megastar with a swollen ego who wants to be considered a genuine artist, writing only original songs. He’s maddened when an opportunistic Michael Jackson rips him off with a hit spoof called “Beat It.”
There are innumerable big, weird stars who are there to applaud Yankovic’s rise to fame, including Andy Warhol, Divine, Tiny Tim, Pee-wee Herman, and Salvador Dalí, who declares, “Weird Al will change everything we know about art!”
But there are big-star naysayers too, such as Jack Black as Wolfman Jack and David Dastmalchian as John Deacon — the bass player for Queen, as he has to explain to everyone — who challenge Yankovic at a Dr Demento party to prove his talent by making up new lyrics on the spot to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” This leads to a defiant ad-libbed performance of Yankovic’s hilarious “Another One Rides the Bus” that wows everyone. In no time, Yankovic is being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey (Quinta Brunson), putting the seal on his worldwide celebrity.
So happy holidays, everyone, and enjoy this good-natured entertainment that may very well save you from the worst interludes of family togetherness!
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: Daniel Radcliffe as “Weird Al” Yankovic in Weird: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Photo: Roku