Polygon has a team on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, reporting on the horror, comedy, drama, and action movies meant to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.
For nearly five decades now, one man has defined what parody music looks like at its best. His subjects have ranged from pop icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson to rock and hip-hop creators like Joan Jett and Coolio. He isn’t known by his name so much as by his chosen title: “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Some of the first words uttered in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story are meant as satire: “Life is like a parody of your favorite songs,” a nod to Forrest Gump’s iconic “box of chocolates” line. This is what every single beat of Eric Appel’s feature film expansion of his Funny or Die short of the same name aims for. Why wouldn’t a biopic of a parody artist’s life be a parody itself? Accordingly, Weird is relentless about poking fun at practically every damn subject it touches. Co-written by Appel and Yankovic himself, the film both embraces and skewers most of the musical biopics that came before it, along with the history of music itself. It’s something of an onslaught of humor, using every scene as an excuse to deliver one or more jokes — usually a lot more. Much like Appel’s original faux-trailer short, the feature rewrites Yankovic’s life by creating a strange amalgamation of reality and fiction.
Weird starts at the faux end of Yankovic’s life, in a hospital death scene quickly revealed as a fake-out and setup for a long history. Appel and Yankovic (played in the film by Harry Potter series star Daniel Radcliffe) take their sweet time moving through the kind of moments that music biopics are well known for doing to death: childhood trauma and fractured parental relationships, meteoric rises to fame and casually shocking collaborations, a tender mentorship and a heartbreaking descent into the world of drugs, sex, and alcohol. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it expertly links these false scenarios in with Weird Al’s real history, consistently forcing the audience to question what reality really means within fiction.
Accuracy has become the definitive measure of how contemporary biopics are judged, but Appel and Yankovic question that concept. Some filmmakers choose to sacrifice history in favor of a sanitized, accessible product, typically at the request of the artists being documented, or those who manage their image. (Bohemian Rhapsody is a prime example.) Other filmmakers aim for something closer to an honest version of reality, like Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, as opposed to Jalil Lespert’s “approved” Yves Saint Laurent. Or they embrace fantasy and metaphor to paint a greater portrait of an artist, like Todd Haynes’ brilliant I’m Not There.
Even in documentary portraits, though, packaging a life into a few hours produces an obvious, undeniable falseness. And the audience is only seeing the artist through the eyes of whoever’s creating the story. This is where Yankovic’s parody skills come in handy. He expertly rewrites history to the point of such blatant falseness that even viewers who barely have an inkling about Yankovic’s true life story can still recognize how he’s adapted it for his comic benefit.
The film moves comfortably between its three expected acts: Weird Al’s rise as a parody artist in spite of a closeted accordion-playing childhood; his downfall due to drugs, alcohol, and Madonna’s influence; and his image rehabilitation after the demise of his relationship and a return to his past that brings true peace of mind and canonization. Much of the film is frankly unreal — the simplest bits of history are sometimes the most sincere ones, from the way Yankovic recorded his debut song, “My Bologna,” in a university bathroom because it had good acoustics to the way Dr. Demento’s comedy-music show brought Yankovic to national attention. Along the way, the film even recontextualizes his live productions, like his “Like a Surgeon” performance that parodies Madonna’s Truth or Dare performance of “Like a Virgin.”
Weird’s approach to musical history morphs actual events, both niche and obvious, into moments revolving around Yankovic, in openly ridiculous ways. There’s Weird Al, wearing six platinum records around his neck, getting the full Oprah interview treatment, as if his fame was ever truly at that level. He’s being arrested in Miami for public exposure in Jim Morrison’s place, an event reframed as Yankovic whipping out his accordion onstage, rather than his genitals. (The film frames accordions as obscene throughout the film, including when teenage Yankovic is caught by cops while playing one at a polka party.)
Pablo Escobar’s reported interest in kidnapping Michael Jackson is transformed into a subplot where Escobar is instead obsessed with Yankovic, and kidnapping his in-film girlfriend Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). There’s even a Boogie Nights-style backyard party of celebrities that places Elton John, Pee-wee Herman, Devo, Tiny Tim, Gallagher, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Wolfman Jack, John Deacon, and Divine (among many others) all in the same room at once, floored by the power of Weird Al’s parodying abilities.
Its true turning point from playfully fictional to outright ahistorical comes with the framing of the song “Eat It” as an original song rather than a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” Within minutes of both audience and record label hearing this “new original song by Al Yankovic,” Jackson’s “Beat It” hits the radio, dashing his dreams of being taken seriously as an original artist, and resulting in the world believing that his song was a parody all along.
It’s a simple story beat, reminiscent of Yankovic’s minor 30 Rock cameo where Jenna Maroney attempts to write an “unparody-able” song to foil the artist, resulting in him creating a popular “serious” song instead. But the “Eat It” arc and its humor spawns an entirely new dramatic arc for the film. Yankovic’s commitment to his persona and brand is precisely what makes his screen appearances throughout pop culture so enjoyable, even when they’re as simple as playing a plain, “not weird” version of himself on Work in Progress. The actors in his biopic are equally committed to the straight-faced silliness that defines this movie.
Spotting all the cameos (often from famous actors or comedians playing different celebrities) contributes to the joy of the film, but Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Yankovic grounds the story. Maybe “grounded” is the wrong word for a film featuring Weird Al meeting Queen Elizabeth II (whose death on the day of the film’s premiere at TIFF resulted in uproarious, slightly uncomfortable, laughter at the screening) and the notion that Weird Al could replace Roger Moore as James Bond. But everything the film does well comes back to Radcliffe’s performance.
In lieu of live vocals or covers, the actor purposefully and obviously lip-syncs to Weird Al’s actual voice, just one of many comic beats that the film throws at Radcliffe, who nails them expertly. It isn’t an individually great performance, exactly, but it perfectly captures the sincerity that has garnered many an actor an Oscar nod or nomination in the face of completely nonsensical storytelling and writing. Even the supporting performances, like Wood’s comically villainous Madonna, Julianne Nicholson’s occasionally cutting but mostly doting role as Yankovic’s mother, Mary, and Toby Huss as Nick, Yankovic’s working-class father who just can’t stand that accordion music, all feel ideally calculated to fit the pre-existing Behind the Music roles they’re playing off of.
In a realm where Walk Hard is often cited as the definitive work of music-biopic parody — both an expert satire of previous films like Walk the Line and Ray, and a sign of more to come with films like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and even Baz Luhrmann’s inspired Elvis — it would be fairly easy to dismiss Weird: The Al Yankovic Story as nothing particularly special. But Yankovic’s attention to detail and embrace of the absurd is precisely what makes the film so intoxicatingly charming, even in the face of a script that sometimes feels like it’s simply a loose framework for delivering a wave of gags (not all of which will land for each viewer).
It’s an extended work of parody art that’s actually funny, and an extended return to comedy from someone who is something of a master at it. In a world where the man hasn’t released an album in eight years, it’s damn refreshing to have this cinematic ode to his specific brand of humor.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story will stream for free on the Roku Channel beginning Nov. 4.