There’s a genuine, fact-based biopic to be made about “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose four-decade career in musical parody has survived more pop trends than there are verses in “Albuquerque.” The major beats of his career — from his ’80s rise as a protégé of Dr. Demento to his early mastery of the video format, career ebbs, ’90s comeback on the strength of a killer Nirvana parody, and fleeting feuds with Coolio, Prince, and others — are already stranger than fiction.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (★★★☆☆), which is co-written and co-produced by the real Yankovic and directed by Eric Appel, is not that movie. Nor does it aspire to be. An outlandish, fictionalized spin on Yankovic’s origin story, set in a milieu where polka parties are a corruptive subculture and Madonna is a conniving seductress with ulterior motives, Weird is as much a parody as “Like a Surgeon” or “White & Nerdy” were. This time, biopics are Yankovic’s target.
Describing the movie feels like a game of pop-culture Mad Libs, but here goes. Loosely based on a 2010 Funny or Die short, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story stars Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame in the title role and benefits from a bounty of cameos, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Conan O’Brien, and — in an inspired gag — Yankovic himself as a haughty record executive. It’s released by The Roku Channel, oddly enough, which picked up the project for just $8 million after all the major studios passed.
While the characters are all real figures, and the songs genuine selections from Yankovic’s discography, the events are heavily altered. In this telling, young Al (David Bloom) spends his childhood hiding his accordion in a closet, so as not to incur the wrath of his disapproving mother (Julianne Nicholson) and oppressive father (Toby Huss), a blue-collar scold who forbids “that devil’s squeeze box.”
In college, Al (now played by a mustachioed Radcliffe) is free to explore his passion for parody away from their watchful eyes. Every music biopic must dramatize the moment of inspiration. Weird plays up the absurdity of this trope: While preparing a bologna sandwich, Al suddenly belts out “My Bologna” to his buddies in an instant of divine epiphany.
After performing his songs locally, he is mentored by the novelty disc jockey Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), who brings him to a celeb-filled pool party in a colorful sequence that evokes Boogie Nights. The scene is a neat snapshot of the early ’80s comedy-rock scene. Al quickly becomes a global success, with a Los Angeles mansion and an Oprah Winfrey interview. But he remains crippled by his insecurities and daddy issues.
At its best, Weird has a way of taking aspects of Yankovic’s actual origin story and tweaking them for humorous effect. Yankovic really recorded “My Bologna” in a school bathroom for the acoustics, but in this telling, it’s a bus station restroom, with confused travelers popping in and out. And Madonna really is the only pop star who successfully conceived of an Al parody of her own song. But in this telling, Madonna (entertainingly played by Evan Rachel Wood as a gum-chewing femme fatale) shows up at Al’s mansion and seduces him for the benefit of her own record sales, resulting in one of the film’s most bizarrely funny moments.
The film was intended to spoof the way rock biopics arbitrarily change biographical details. Fair enough. But by its latter half, as Al sinks into alcoholism and dysfunction (the joke, of course, being that the real Yankovic is known to be a polite teetotaler), the balance between real Al and fictional Al feels off. Most frustratingly, Weird‘s third act is consumed by an asinine action plot involving Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro) and Colombian drug thugs. Sequences of overstylized violence, in which Al mows down his drug captors, land with the thud of a boilerplate action parody without any real jokes behind it. If you’re going to fabricate Al’s story, at least make it funnier than the real tale.
Radcliffe is doing his best here, and his post-Potter efforts to pursue offbeat projects and reinvent himself as a quirky character actor are admirable. But he’s never quite believable as Weird Al. He lacks the singer’s effusive goofiness. Part of the problem is that he can’t — or doesn’t — sing. Actors who portray rock stars typically bring vocal chops, but in Weird, it’s perilously obvious that Radcliffe is lip-syncing to Yankovic’s vocal tracks, which hinders the musical numbers.
The film capitalizes on the recent success of factually suspect biopics like 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody and 2019’s Rocketman. But in tone and spirit, Weird feels more akin to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the 2007 cult comedy in which John C. Reilly plays a fictitious rock legend. Beyond the superficial similarities — a colon-infused title, a protagonist who longs for his father’s approval, a harrowing drug-trip sequence — both films lampoon the clichés and self-seriousness of the biopic genre.
Walk Hard worked because of Reilly’s committed performance, yes, but also because of its focus. It followed the trajectory of a generic biopic closely enough to be believable, which made the gags and outlandish details all the funnier.
A messy and congested mishmash of fact and fabrication, of biopic structure and action parody, of low-budget charm and big-budget names, Weird lacks that restraint. Yankovic’s best tunes, like “Amish Paradise” or “Smells Like Nirvana,” are as memorable as the songs they parody. Alas, this faux-Yankovic on the silver screen is never quite as interesting as the man himself.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is exclusively streaming on The Roku Channel. Visit www.therokuchannel.roku.com.
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