‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’ Review: Daniel Radcliffe Gets His Goof On in a Daffy-Droll Music Biopic That Skewers Its Hero and Itself
In “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” the winningly daffy-droll postmodern satirical biopic about the beloved cult song parodist of the MTV era, Al (Daniel Radcliffe), weird but not yet “Weird,” is sitting around with his roommates when lightning strikes — or, at least, bologna. One of the roommates asks Al to name the thing he’d most like to do in the world. Al, speaking with a fervor bigger than mere desire — he’s talking about nothing less than a dream — replies, with stoic conviction, “Make up the words to a song that already exists.” Moments later, the Knack’s “My Sharona” is blasting away on the radio, and just after he’s taken a package of bologna out of the fridge, he has his a-ha moment. The lyrics come to him in a flash: “Oo my little hungry one! Hungry one! Open up a package of MY bologna…” An irresistible parasitical fake star is born.
“Weird,” it turns out, isn’t a real biopic. It’s a movie that does to the biopic form what Weird Al did to songs like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Beat It” — imitates it, razzes it, throws mud at it, turns it inside out. And all with supreme affection. Almost nothing in the movie actually happened, save for the song parodies. It’s all relentlessly over-the-top and exaggerated — the Weird Al aga turned into a circus-balloon version of itself. Yet the movie has the spirit of one of the “Naked Gun” films. It’s enthralled with pop culture and in love with the tropes it’s parodying — it makes fun of itself with such gleeful devotion that there’s something disarmingly sincere about its japery. Part of the joke of Weird Al was that his song comedy had a knowingly obvious rib-nudging quality. “Weird,” in outfitting Weird Al’s mock artistry with a mock biopic, takes rib-nudging to the second power. That turns out to be a pleasingly ticklish sensation.
The movie, to its credit, is a comedy that salutes, skewers, and completely understands the not just silly but goofball scandalous nature of the celebrity of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Starting in the early ’80s, he was a geek who attached himself to famous Top 40 singles and, by re-creating the songs but substituting the most dunderheaded lyrics possible, made those songs seem reborn as resplendent dumb imitations of themselves. The Weird Al songs were called parodies, yet to use that word is almost to elevate what he did. He was taking famous paintings and drawing mustaches on them, mocking them with the everything’s-a-sham-including-me broad brush of Mad magazine crossed with the exuberance of a second-grader singing “Jingle bells, Batman smells.” He took pop songs and gave them noogies.
That the songs, in their silly new palm-buzzer versions, became hits all over again was the joke behind the joke. By stripping the original lyrics away but preserving the hookiness of the music, Weird Al (with apologies to music critics) revealed something essential about how pop music works — that the lyrics to more pop songs than most of us would admit are basically window dressing. The Weird Al version of a song might be about making a sandwich, riding the bus, or loving Rocky Road ice cream, but the song sounded every bit as catchy that way. So the joke was on the original artists, and sort of on us.
The secret of Weird Al’s success is that he may have been the first star of the YouTube/TikTok era — 30 years ahead of the invention of those things. Anyone today who did the equivalent of what Weird Al did back in the ’80s would probably be a viral sensation. And part of what we loved about Weird Al is the transparent fact that he a kind of showmanship that doesn’t actually involve much talent. Many of the videos that get big on YouTube or TikTok are, in essence, aspirational; for the viewer, they carry an “I want to be that” or (more to the point) an “If I play my cards right, that could be me” dimension. And that very quality, decades before we began amusing ourselves to death on social media, was baked into the goofy glory of “Weird Al” Yankovic.
He wasn’t a pop star, but he was a tall, gangly, rather good-looking nerd who mocked his own handsomeness by decking it out in wire-frame aviator glasses, a sardine mustache, the ugliest Hawaiian shirts he could find, and that unruly mop of curls. He used this costume of geek to tweak himself the same way that his lyrics tweaked the songs. And what he was saying to his audience, with a wink, is that you could practically do this too. He was crafting glorified grade-school mock jingles, riding the coattails of the artists he attached them to, and making it feel like we were all part of that same giddy and harmlessly debased party.
The movie, directed by TV veteran Eric Apel, from a script he wrote with “Weird Al,” doesn’t just satirize the rise-and-fall clichés of celebrity biopics, the way “Walk Hard” did; it lives the clichés even as it lampoons them. In this version of his story, Weird Al grows up in the ’70s with parents who are hilariously blinkered in their refusal to approve of his accomplishments. His mother, Mary, played by Julianne Nicholson (who, after Blonde, is cornering the market on oppressive moms), is a dowdy doom-sayer, while his father, Nick (Toby Huss), is an angry crumbum factory worker who thinks Al should come work at the factory — it’s a running joke that no one knows what the factory makes — and treats his son’s dream like a flower he wants to crush. When an accordion salesman drops by, Nick pounds the crap out of him, but not before Al has fastened onto the bulky hand-pumped organ keyboard as the instrument of his salvation.
Al attends a high-school polka party that the movie treats as a shameful bacchanal, and he auditions for a punk band with his accordion version of “Beat on the Brat.” But it’s not until he comes up with “My Bologna” that the basic comic strategy of “Weird” clicks into place. The movie is going to be about how Al became a huge star — huger than he actually was, a kind of megastar of mishigas. He first ascends after making a connection to Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), the absurdist neo-carny wizard of an L.A radio personality who’s the first to play his songs, and then, at a pool party at Dr. Demento’s house, he proves himself in front of the world. The movie is full of juicy cameos — fun celebrities played, in certain cases by fun actors — and this terrific scene is a veritable orgy of them. Look, it’s Pee-wee Herman! It’s Frank Zappa and Divine! It’s Conan O’Brien as Andy Warhol! And it’s John Deacon, the bass player from Queen (who, too his dismay, no one recognizes), who inspires the growly hipster DJ Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black) to lay down a challenge to Al: If he’s so great, can he make up a song parody on the spot? Under pressure, in front of everyone, he free-styles “Another One Rides the Bus.”
It feels right, at first, to see Daniel Radcliffe portray Al as an earnest nerd, but one of the good jokes of “Weird” is what a fulsome Hollywood-biopic arc his personality undergoes. Radcliffe does it expertly. He starts off as wallflower, then turns into a guy who’s almost’s living in the shadow of his success, then embraces his celebrity, then hge meets Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who becomes his girlfriend, at which point he begins to enter his swelled-head phase. The key moment is built around the song “Eat It.” Al seems to come up with it the same way he does his others, only now, in his egomania, he’s convinced it’s actually an original song. When Michael Jackson comes out with “Beat It,” Al — and the movie — treats it as if he’s been ripped off. But this casually surreal twist actually has a resonance to it. It’s Weird Al scathingly making fun of his own absurdly ripped-off art. It also figures craftily into the classic-biopic plot: Al needs to claim “originality” — to the point of insanity — because that’s how much his daddy’s rejection of him wounds him. “Weird” ridicules the way that biopics turn into therapeutic soap operas. Yet by the time Al heads down to Colombia to rescue Madonna from Pablo Escobar, the movie has nudged its hero’s rise to the point that he’s now an action star, all of which Radcliffe plays with poker-faced charisma.
I can’t say Evan Rachel Wood does the world’s best Madonna impersonation, but playing Madge in the mid-’80s, when she was first experiencing the majesty of her superstardom, Wood amusingly tweaks how Madonna was wired, in the smallest interactions, for self-promotion. “Weird,” in its frivolous way, turns into a riff on megalomania, as Weird Al himself has a getting-drunk-and-treating-his-bandmates-like-crap episode, then a Jim Morrison will-he-expose-himself-on-stage? episode. But when he’s told tha the reunited Led Zeppelin want to go on tour with him, he’s insulted. He’s already lined up Howie Mandel!
“Weird” is witty and inventive enough to sustain what could, in lesser hands, have been a one-joke movie, an “SNL” parody of itself. The film’s ultimate joke is that “Weird Al” Yankovic’s entire career was a joke — not just because he made so-daft-they’re-funny versions of other people’s songs, but because what he did made him a hilarious contradiction, a court jester of imitation. When he does “Amish Paradise,” performing it in concert, there’s a shot of Coolio seated in the audience, looking absolutely pissed off. We giggle because we understand why. Weird Al didn’t create; he didn’t even quite satirize. But he thumbed his nose with abandon, reminding us all that just because a song has had its brain removed doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it.
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