Weird: The Al Yankovic Story will premier on the Roku Channel streaming service on November 4.
I had the good fortune to interview “Weird Al” Yankovic in the summer of 1999. The comic musician had Running With Scissors, his first new album in three years, just hitting the stores. The first single off of the album, “The Saga Begins,” a parody of Don McLean’s “American Pie” that poked fun at the first Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, which had just come out in theaters, was getting some decent airplay on MTV. Meanwhile Al and his band were getting ready to hit the road for a months’ long tour to support all of that. Talk shifted at some point to him being the subject of an upcoming episode of VH1’s Behind The Music series. His inclusion in the usually muck-raking series bemused Yankovic, as he never had gone through any of the tabloid-fodder scandals that the show normally trafficked in. “What are they going to say?” he joked. “‘Oh no, his next album didn’t sell quite as good as the previous hit album.'”
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story feels in some way a reaction to that bemusement. A faux-biopic, the movie takes some of the broad facts of the early part of Yankovic’s career and filters them through his unique comic sensibility – Yankovic co-write the film with director Eric Appel – and delivers, in essence, the only movie he could. The parodist has turned himself into the parody and the result is easily the relentlessly funniest film in several years.
Fans of Weird Al, and I count myself among that group for nearly 40 years now, most likely know the basics of his origin story – an only child of two loving parents growing up in Lynwood, California, learning to play the accordion and listening to the novelty records that disc jockey Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, played on his weekly radio show. Here, that story becomes one of a young Al struggling to convince disapproving parents that the accordion is not “confusing and evil” and that there may be a future career in his “original idea” to write new lyrics for preexisting songs. (If any of this were to be taken seriously, even Yankovic would probably admit that the ghost of Spike Jones would want a word.)
The film follows Al, in the form of Daniel Radcliffe sporting a fairly unconvincing wig and fake mustache, as he meets Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), who Svengalis the young musician’s career into becoming a “well known accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music.” Along the way, the film leaves no overused, hoary cliche of the biopic genre unspoofed. Broad emotional beats, contrived moments of “artistic inspiration” and too-on-the-point dialogue all get their turn in the comedy grinder.
As Al’s star rises, up-and-coming singer Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood, who has the singer’s original, pre-fake-British accent perfectly down) sees hitching her wagon to his as a way to help her own struggling pop career. Fights with his band, drunken benders, dealing with crazed fan drug lord Pablo Escobar and numerous other things that didn’t happen but make for great comedic fodder unfold with a frantic energy that doesn’t let up even through the closing credits song.
The film also features a number of fun cameos from comedians and musicians, perhaps a tribute to Al’s reputation as just being one of the generally nicer guys in show business. Comedy fans should have fun identifying who the various party guest extras are in a scene at a BBQ at Dr. Demento’s home early on.
If there is anything wrong with Weird, it lies not with the film itself but with the distribution plan for the movie. After a brief festival run, the film is heading to the Roku streaming device’s inboard branded channel. As such, a majority of people will be seeing this from the comfort of their couch with family and maybe some friends alongside them, with some snacks and beverages of choice. And that’s a perfectly fine way to watch any movie. But Weird is such a big, silly movie that it feels like it needs to be seen on a big screen. (And I say this setting any kind of business considerations aside, though Roku is probably leaving a good deal of money on the table by not even giving the film a short theatrical run.) Laughter is contagious and after almost three years of some people avoiding theaters because of COVID, this just might lure them back with the promise of something they wouldn’t mind catching – a hilariously good time.