'Weird: The Al Yankovic Story' Embraces the Beauty of Making Shit Up

A fitting tribute to one of pop music's most unique figures

Corey Atad
Polka Legends

There is nobody in popular culture who occupies a space as unique as Weird Al Yankovic. For decades, the accordion player has been charming the pants off just about everyone, crafting pop-parody hits that, in some cases, have outlasted their original targets. If anything, it’s surprising that it took this long for a biopic about him to make it to the screen, but then how in the world could anyone make a movie about a guy who’s just fun and likable and more than a bit goofy, with no real drama to be mined? The answer director Eric Appel and Weird Al himself have found is, hilariously, just making it all up. And that’s how we’ve ended up with Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which brought down the house at the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program this year.

To be sure, the audience largely composed of Weird Al superfans (I lost count of the people donning wigs and mustaches) was primed to eat it all up, and admittedly, so was I. But regardless of any you-had-to-be-there energy, Weird delivers exactly at the level required, doing for Yankovic what the artist himself has done for the artists he’s spoofed over the years. Walk Hard may have already gotten there 15 years ago, savagely skewering the rock star biopic, but Weird finds its own voice by, as the character of Weird Al in the film puts it, fulfilling the dream of making up new words to a song that already exists.

It’s probably safe to say that most people who love Weird Al discovered him when they were kids. His sense of humor is childish and warm-hearted, his parody songs puerile as they are clear. Though he has occasionally produced original comedy songs, and sometimes simply covered existing ones in the style of polka, his bread and butter is transforming songs lyrically to be about everything from bologna to detailed plot recaps of movies. His 1999 parody of Don McLean’s epic “American Pie,” turned into a hilariously precise retelling of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace — ”Ahh, do you see him hitting on the queen/Though he's just nine and she's fourteen” — was my first real introduction to Weird Al. Finding him at the perfect age of 10, delighted by his stupid creativity. I was a fan for life, as were so many others, often people who would never have expected to enjoy a novelty artist turning Michael Jackson hits into songs about food. Amazingly, Weird Al had already been around, doing his thing and winning fans — Kurt Cobain purportedly called him "America's modern pop-rock genius” — for 20 years when “The Saga Begins” came out, marking another resurgence in his career, with his biggest hit, the Chamillionaire parody “White & Nerdy” becoming his first Top 10 hit nearly a decade later still.

Based on a 2009 Funny or Die sketch starring Aaron Paul as Weird Al, the Roku-produced feature film casts Daniel Radcliffe, who brings all the good will he’s earned with audiences in his post-Potter years to the role of one of pop music’s most likable figures. A sign of exactly what the film is up to comes when Radcliffe opens his mouth to sing and Weird Al’s own voice comes out instead, with absolutely zero attempt to hide the fact. Nearly every aspect of the movie plays this way, winkingly ignoring the tropes of the genre in order to tell a better story. This is a Weird Al who gets arrested for playing an accordion at a polka party as a teen; who becomes more successful than the Beatles; who carries on a torrid, career-destroying relationship with a conniving and evil Madonna; and who takes a Rambo-esque jaunt down to Colombia for a violent face-off against Pablo Escobar.

Weird excels in its fealty to legends from Yankovic’s life story and its brazen disregard for anything resembling a factual accounting of said legends.

The movie establishes its style quickly, in its opening moments, letting the audience know that this is exactly the Weird Al biopic we didn’t know we needed all these years. Launching in media res, the singer is rushed into the ER after some terrible accident, clearly the low point of his career. His doctor is Lin-Manuel Miranda, which somehow works. Looking like he’s about to die, Al suddenly wakes right up, demanding a pad of paper and a No. 2 pencil. Inspiration has struck. If you know Weird Al, you know what song will result. The movie then flashes all the way back to his childhood, a young Alfred Yankovic hides under his bed covers, secretly listening to the Dr. Demento radio show, when his mom walks into the room and tells him to stop listening to that filth. Sending him off to get ready for school, she makes his bed and discovers tucked away against the wall… a Hawaiian shirt. Cut to title.

Weird excels in its fealty to legends from Yankovic’s life story and its brazen disregard for anything resembling a factual accounting of said legends. The jam session that led to his parody of “My Sharona” is rendered as a near-mythic moment of inspiration, his roommate asking him to “open up a package of my bologna” while the Knack’s hit plays on the radio, Radcliffe’s expression lost in sudden divine genius, the lyrics to “My Bologna” coming together leading to the infamous first recording of the song in a public bathroom. He mails the demo tape off to a radio station, which magically puts it on the air, declaring it a hit, literally minutes later, sending Weird Al and his friends into a frenzy, trashing their apartment. Things only become more silly from there, in the best possible way.

After learning about the so-called “Weird Al Bump” experienced by the artists he parodies, Madonna, here played by a hilariously game Evan Rachel Wood, gets some ideas. She’s the villain of the story, and not just because she seduces Weird Al and gets him addicted to drugs and alcohol, destroying his friendships and nearly tanking his career. She also becomes something like a Bond villain. That’s not a joke. That as far as anyone knows, Weird Al and Madonna have never met makes the sustained joke hilarious in itself. That the joke stems from the fact that Madonna did actually suggest replacing “Like a Virgin” with “Like a Surgeon” to a mutual friend makes it that much better. The film is full of deep cut nods like that, none of which require a specialized knowledge of Weird Al’s history, but all of which carry that feeling of real care for the subject. Another wildly conceived joke about the provenance of “Eat It,” Weird Al’s parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” starts funny and gets funnier and funnier simply because it never lets up.

The whole movie plays like that, really. That’s not to say it’s some new masterpiece. It’s no Walk Hard at the end of the day, but that’s a high bar. It’s a little long, there are moments when the sincerity of the story, necessary for the movie to function as more than mere over-extended sketch comedy, nevertheless slows things down in a less-than-ideal way. Not every joke lands, either. But the relentless flood of them means one bum punchline will inevitably be followed by three or four great ones, and if anything the constant assault of jokes and gags and movie references (everything from Boogie Nights to A Star Is Born) is occasionally exhausting. It’s hard to complain about a movie having too many good jokes, though. And that feels true to the spirit of Weird Al: a persistent will to entertain, with unfiltered silliness, layers and layers of references and nothing but heart. It’s one for the fans, but who doesn’t love Weird Al?

Corey Atad is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Esquire, Hazlitt and The Baffler and he has an unhealthy obsession with Air Bud.