It’s certainly apropos that “Weird Al” Yankovic, a musician whose pronounced lack of self-seriousness has been a crucial part of his appeal and longevity, would filter his life through the music biopic, a genre infamous for its sober-minded, melodramatic efforts. What better way for the world’s preeminent parody musician to pay tribute to himself than by using his own life story to parody the biopic itself? While “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” co-written by Yankovic and director Eric Appel, broadly follows the beats of the three-minute Funny or Die fake trailer on which it’s based, the actual film riffs on Yankovic’s career to paint a portrait of the artist as a pop cultural renaissance man who can sell out stadiums, bed Madonna, and take on Pablo Escobar in just a few short years. Appel and Yankovic exaggerate, and then completely diverge from, the truth until their imitation of the real story is all that remains.
With that said, “Weird” can still be broadly split into semi-factual and off-the-rails sections. The first and more successful half follows Al, played by a committed Daniel Radcliffe, as a comedy and accordion-obsessed child contending with parents (Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson) who disapprove of his musical ambitions. He eventually leaves home to attend college where his roommates, and future band members, encourage his dreams of becoming a parody artist. (“I want to make up words to a song that already exists,” Al tells his friends with almost religious conviction.) Not soon after he sends a tape of “My Bologna” into a local radio station, Al hooks up with broadcaster and comedy kingmaker Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) who sets him on the path to stardom.
“Weird” certainly has fun heightening and abstracting the details of Yankovic’s rise to fame, but it’s great that Appel and Yankovic initially stick to the broad strokes of the story. Yankovic’s relationship with Dr. Demento, whose cult radio show specialized in novelty songs, was crucial to his early success. “My Bologna” was actually recorded in a bathroom to take advantage of the acoustics, though not a bus station bathroom where Al and his bandmates need to kick out patrons for privacy. Yankovic did actually record the Queen parody “Another One Rides the Bus” live, except not at a lavish party to prove his talent to DJ Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) in front of other “weird” artists like Pee-Wee Herman, Gallagher, and DEVO. They even included the detail of Yankovic’s drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz (Tommy O’Brien) banging on his accordion case to keep a steady beat.
By even slightly hewing to the facts, “Weird” can improvise and digress in entertaining ways. Huss shines as Yankovic’s manically unsupportive father, who works “down at the factory,” a seemingly dangerous place whose output is a permanent mystery, and finds his son’s song parodies “confusing and evil.” Radcliffe nails the classic struck-by-inspiration expression as he stares at a package of bologna while “My Sharona” plays on the radio. In an oddly sweet scene, Al charms the grizzled whisky-and-heroin crowd at a hyper-violent punk bar with his first live performance of “I Love Rocky Road.” Arguably the film’s best and funniest scene features a teenaged Al secretly attending a “polka party” where he gets his first taste of acclaim before it’s broken up by the cops.
“Weird” ultimately takes a turn to gonzo fiction when it’s time for Al to record “Eat It,” one of his biggest hits. Except in the world of the film, “Eat It” is not a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” but an original song, which Al writes to try to become a “serious” artist. When Jackson records his parody “Beat It,” it drives Al to madness and he views his hit like an albatross around his neck. (It’s unclear if this joke was merely designed to be absurd or if it falls in line with Yankovic’s recent decision to pull his Jackson parodies from his live show in the wake of the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland.”) Around then, Al quickly falls under the spell of Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood, doing a winning goofy impression of the pop star), whose quest for the “Yankovic bump” in record sales pushes her to ensnare Al and drive him to alcoholism until he’s magically struck with the inspiration to record “Like a Surgeon.”
As much as it’s fun to see Wood commit to the gum-snapping vixen role or a shirtless Radcliffe drunkenly screaming at fans about them being slaves, the second half of “Weird” feels disappointingly programmatic, ironically just like the second half of many biopics. Part of the problem simply lies with the film leaning into set pieces instead of gags and throwaway jokes, where the humor naturally thrives. But “Weird” also seems to detrimentally commit to a biopic’s standard emotional beats even as it briefly turns into an action film involving Colombian drug cartels before returning to the formula of a slightly askew comeback story. Appel and Yankovic might be parodying the inevitable father-son reconciliation scenes in spurts but they’re still making us watch it at length. At some point, “Weird” feels like it’s going through the motions despite ostensibly subverting those motions.
Despite “Weird” inevitably biting off more than it can chew, the actual performances of Yankovic’s hit songs have a comfortable nostalgia factor and the various inside jokes to his career will certainly delight the “Weird Al” fanatic. (Watch out for references to Coolio and Prince, two artists who respectively objected to and rejected Yankovic’s cheeky homages.) Unlike Jake Kasdan’s “Walk Hard,” who took dead aim at the genre through the fictional Dewey Cox, a walking amalgamation of 20th century musicians, “Weird” sets its sights differently by embracing the inherent nicheness of its subject. “Weird” might operate within a familiar mold, but it ultimately affirms that Yankovic, despite being a fundamentally parasitic artist, carved an endearingly strange path all on his own.
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released on The Roku Channel November 4.