Filed under: Reviews
I stood in the audience to see New Order, a band with a dark and tragic past whose phoenix-like rise from the ashes of Joy Division was the source of several documentaries and biopics. That's when I received a text from a friend telling me that their plus one to the 9am showing of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story had bailed and would I like the ticket? For context, I own the Squeeze Box collection in vinyl, a replica of Al's accordion that was filled with his entire collected discography... that I got autographed. The answer was an immediate yes.
The next day I excitedly pulled out my formal Hawaiian shirt and my formal Chuck Taylors, shaved my beard down into a moustache, and rushed out the door making it to the theatre to find, despite the early time, a line chock full of people with tacky shirts (both tacky in the figurative sense like myself and the literal sense in that they were referencing Al's song, "Tacky"). All of this is to say that my excitement and that of the audience was palpable.
Al is one of those generational acts. There may be potty humour, but it's never cruel, and he'll be the first to drop or revise an act as society changes around it, like how he dropped songs "Fat" and "Eat It" for what may seem like obvious reasons. He's the definition of "a good dude" -- his life was full of kindness, love, and support, and while it has been touched with tragedy, he never publicly succumbed to the excess of stardom. He's a family man who's by all accounts kind, even to the point of humouring me when I gave him a pitch package for a podcast at a VIP meet & greet despite my better judgment.
How do you make a music biopic out of this? By doing what Al does best: parody. In 2010, Eric Appel (Son of Zorn, Silicon Valley) released a parody trailer for a movie called Weird: The Al Yankovic Story starring Aron Paul and an all-star cast of funny people on Funny or Die. Al had a small part as one of the Scotti Brothers (the founders of his first label, Scotti Brothers Records). He enjoyed himself, and the premise, so much that he decided he wanted to make this a real thing by partnering with Eric to write and produce a full-length version of the parody film they created.
Over the course of the transition from a parody trailer for a non-existent film to a real film parodying the now seemingly ever-present music biopic genre, there were some changes. Out were Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde as Al and Madonna; in were Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, Miracle Workers) and Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld, Kajillionaire). Patton Oswalt was replaced by Rainn Wilson (The Office, The Rocker) as Dr. Demento, but Al remained one of the Scotti brothers and Brain Huskey was replaced by Will Forte (MacGruber, Saturday Night Live) as the other brother. That said, almost all the original cast from the short found a part in the new film, the one notable exception being Aaron Paul who was booked for the film but tested positive for COVID when he arrived at set. Shot short and tight for Roku's streaming service with an 18-day schedule, by the time he recovered, they were already too far into shooting to get his scene. But given his support for the film, it's clear there's nothing but goodwill for this project from everyone involved.
If you've watched any music biopic, you've seen the formula in Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody, Control (the film based on New Order's progenitor band Joy Division), and many more. You have the establishing childhood story where a conflicted relationship with the subject's parents is established, followed by the struggle of the protagonist to find their place, their inevitable collapse, and eventual rebirth. The shape of the parody is obvious, but like Al's parody songs, it's the details that make it work so well. Every actor brought an earnestness to their performance, treating it no different than Kill Your Darlings or Westworld. Rainn's project with James Gunn, Super, is the most direct parallel to Weird -- act the film straight and the comedy will come from that juxtaposition of themes and performances.
As the film progresses you get some real facts like yes, "My Balogna" was recorded in a college bathroom. Many of Al's band have worked with him since his first album, and the legend Dr. Demento was his mentor, but Al did not have a torrid affair with Madonna, he never had a huge public drug and alcohol addiction, and he certainly didn't write "Like a Surgeon" after coming out of a coma on a doctor's table. This film did what Al's music does so well: it pulls at the threads of its source material, it weaves in weird tangents and silliness to make something unique and special, and in many ways it's greater than but never disrespectful to that which inspired it.
While Evan Rachel Wood was a great look-alike for Madonna -- during her audition she did a pitch-perfect heightened impersonation of Madonna (following Appel's direction of "be Madonna on LOTS of coke" to a T) -- Daniel Radcliffe is not someone who pops to mind when you think of casting for the lanky Al Yankovic. That is until you dig past the surface, as Radcliffe is a huge musical comedy fan who has also spent time on Broadway doing musicals. He was chosen by Al after performing Tom Lehrer's "Element Song" on The Graham Norton Show because Al knew that he understood the silliness in musical comedy. With a cast full of L.A. comedy royalty, watching this film is like watching a plate spinner -- while in perfect balance everything is amazing, if one plate wasn't right disaster could ensue, but it doesn't. Everyone keeps the perfect tension of weird and silly nonsense and never treads on other performers' time on screen. Even the pool party scene packed with entertainment royalty (all the music movies have them) which could have easily gone off the rails for being too loaded with big scene-chewing funny people was edited perfectly so everyone shone (I won't say any more because this is a moment of silliness that has to be seen to be appreciated).
The film went on to win People's Choice for the Midnight Madness screenings at TIFF; in a way, it's sad that it won't have more time in cinemas, but ultimately it may be for the best. This is a perfect example of a film that works well on a streaming platform. It's tight and funny and shot quickly and on a low budget, but never looks cheap. That said, there is an admittedly narrow appeal. If you are not an Al fan but do love films like Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story, this is a film you'll enjoy. But for people who aren't fans of Al or his silly brand of humour, I have to first ask: who hurt you? Are you okay? Can I get you help? I then need to admittedly say this film may not be for you, but the broad accessibility of a streaming entry makes it perfect to get out to that niche audience while hopefully introducing new folks to Al's body of work.
All that said, at its core, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a story of being true to you, embracing your weirdness, and maybe you don't need a dark painful past to be a success. Maybe you just must dare to be stupid.