Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
What I thought of when I first heard about Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, was Milos Forman’s 1999 film, Man on the Moon, about stand-up comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman. I grew up loving Andy as a form-breaking comic talent and I remember being incredibly excited by the idea of someone like Forman making an Andy Kaufman movie. What I was disappointed to discover when I sat down in the theater, though, is that isn’t quite what Man on the Moon was. It was a movie about Andy Kaufman’s life, but aside from a somewhat daring opening sequence, it wasn’t anything like what I realized I actually wanted: a movie in the subversive spirit of what Andy himself would have made. That was kind of a lightbulb moment for me when it came to biopics, and how big a difference there is between a biopic being an accurate representation of the events of someone’s life versus being an authentic representation of what that person was all about. Man on the Moon succeeds on that first measure, but it couldn’t help but fall short on the second because it was core to who Andy Kaufman was that he never let the audience in on a bit. A just-the-facts account of his life is about as antithetical to who he was as you can get. “Weird Al” Yankovic has been a pop culture fixture for almost 40 years, and the theme of his work throughout has been bringing craftsmanship and a relentless silliness, even self-described stupidity, to his song parodies and other projects. The concern with a “Weird Al” movie is that stuck within the confines of a biopic, it would either be unwilling to be as silly and stupid as it needed to be authentic to “Weird Al” as an artist, or that it might go so far towards the opposite extremes of silliness that it wasn’t sufficiently rooted in anything real to give an audience something to care about. As it turns out, though, I needn’t have worried. In many ways, this film, for all its absurdity, is the most authentic expression in his career of who “Weird Al” Yankovic is.
Rather than wade too far into spoilers for a film that’s only been out for a little bit, I wanted to try and talk about Weird, by discussing how it relates to some other films that are working in this same kind of space. Given how directly Weird is attacking the tropes of musical biopics, the film it might most easily be compared to is 2007’s, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. That film picks and chooses from a number of biopics about musicians to invent its titular Dewey Cox, blending together some of the most hackneyed tropes of those films with some of the assorted artist’s most outrageous stories, to create something wonderfully absurdist that amounts to a retelling of the previous 50 years of popular music. What seems so much more subversive about Weird, though, is the idea of a real person like Weird Al, using his own life to create something similarly absurd. Weird isn’t entirely fiction, using funhouse mirror versions of the events from Al’s life to tell this story, but what starts out as a sendup of musical biopics winds up being something a bit more abstract like a Charlie Kaufman film about a famous parody artist with nothing left to parody but himself.
Another film very much in this spirit is George Clooney’s 2002 adaptation of Chuck Barris’s “unauthorized autobiography,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which purports to tell the story of Barris’s life as the tv host and producer that created The Gong Show, as well as his supposed secret double life as a CIA assassin. In both films, it’s someone presenting their own fabricated autobiography. Still, Barris’s story is a bit more performance art as he has never been willing to acknowledge his story as being made up. Clooney and the film are aware they are making a comedy, but doing so by taking Barris’s story seriously. In Weird, conversely, the performances are played straight for maximum comedic effect, but never to the point that the audience needs to take any of the events depicted in the film at all seriously. “Weird Al” has always been fairly overt in his work. Part of his mass appeal is that he wants everyone to be in on the joke. He famously asks permission from artists before parodying their work because he’s looking to be inclusive and to work with people that are in on the joke. The vibe of the film throughout is, “isn’t it wild that we get to make this.”
And lastly, there’s something I see in Weird that I also saw in David Wain’s 2018’s film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, about Doug Kenney, the co-founded National Lampoon magazine. It would be a spoiler for that underseen film to say too much about it here, but A Futile and Stupid Gesture is more straightforwardly a biopic that makes some incredibly bold choices with its narrative framing and with a twist of the ending that makes the film something much more interesting than the standard fare. Weird does something like this in that, in the beginning the film is loosely telling something like “Weird Al”’s story. He really did start to learn to play the accordion because of a door-to-door accordion salesman that came to his house - though in real life his dad didn’t nearly beat that salesman to death for bringing such a devil instrument into his house. There really is such a thing as the Yankovic Bump, where recording artists saw a surge in their sales after he parodies their work, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that “Weird Al” had to worry about being stalked and murdered over. Narratively though, each of these jokes starts to add up, such that you end up in a narrative space very far afield conceptually from where the film begins. In both cases, the ending isn’t real, but it’s the one most satisfying for the story being told.
The biggest factor in how successful the film is, though, is how committed Daniel Radcliffe is. He can do a thing in this film that “Weird Al” can’t, which is, deliver on the comedy while playing this heightened reality completely straight. “Weird Al” is a charismatic presence and can sell his own brand of humor in his songs and music videos, but there is always a very overt wink to the audience with everything he does. Because a part of the target of this film is Oscar bait biopics, what was needed was someone who could throw themselves entirely into the wig and mustache and Hawaiian shirt of it all of the ridiculous “Weird Al” character, but also be able to play the scene where he puts out a cigarette in the hand of a record executive with enough menace and over-seriousness for the absurdity of the moment to hit, yet not so real that it pulls people out of the movie. Radcliffe balances this perfectly throughout. Comedy roles never get the consideration they deserve when award season rolls around, but Radcliffe really is doing some wonderful work here.
Everyone surrounding Radcliffe is wonderful as well. Toby Huss is superb as “Weird Al”’s weirdly angry father. Evan Rachel Wood is so good as bizarro Madonna that I kinda wish she were the one cast in that biopic about herself that Madonna currently has in development. Part of the bending of reality of the film is how many of his famous friends and fans “Weird Al” has appeared in cameos throughout the film. Many of them are surprises that ought not be spoiled, in particular an especially star-studded pool party. Everyone in the film understood the assignment and to a person seems to be having the time of their life.
There is something that just makes sense about this being the film that “Weird Al” would make. It’s so fitting that someone who has made his career parodying other people’s work would find the perfect capstone to his career parodying himself. Even more fitting, though, is how well it turned out. For an idea that began its life as a fake movie trailer, there’s every reason to think there wouldn’t ultimately be enough there to stretch that short skit of a joke into a film, but boy is there nobody in the world better at wringing every joke there is to be found out of a funny premise. There has never been anyone better at turning the silly and stupid into the sublime. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last film we get from him.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.