When “Weird Al” Yankovic gets another epiphany, he’s right there next to a stack of hot dog buns, on the cusp of stardom. The rising parody artist is put to the test when his idols, such as Andy Warhol, Gallagher, Elvira, Tiny Tim, Devine, and Pee-Wee Herman, all show up for a party to celebrate the real Yankovic. Lip-syncing “Weird Al” Yankovic’s voice with the same volcanic fervour as Eminem rapping for his life in “8 Mile,” Daniel Radcliffe’s “Weird Al” transforms Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” into “Another One Rides the Bus.” Salvador Dal, who was at the BBQ, responds sarcastically, “Weird Al” will redefine all we know about art, which is just one of many such moments of brilliance in this movie.
This statement, which serves as the appropriate centrepiece for “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” a pop music phantasmagoria that is both selfless and entertaining, can be taken at face value or not. Weird, written by filmmaker Eric Appel and “Weird Al” Yankovic, is one of the year’s funniest films and captures the essence of what has made Yankovic a subversive force on the Billboard charts since the 1980s.
The story of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a comedy in and of itself, the product of a self-deprecating comedian’s fever dream as he examines his own reflection in a funhouse mirror. True, a door-to-door salesman helped Yankovic become famous, and Madonna (here portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood, who clearly enjoys every bubble gum chew in her comically villainous role) did ask him to parody one of her songs “Like a Virgin,” which inspired Yankovic to write “Like a Surgeon;” Yankovic did release albums with songs like “I Love Rocky Road,” “My Bologna,” and a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Eat It,” demonstrating that parodies can be commercially successful in the modern music industry. The infectious fun of “Weird,” however, lies in the clever tricks it uses to make these points while lampooning Yankovic’s clean reputation. The real “Weird Al” doesn’t get wasted on stage or pop pills or strip off his Hawaiian shirts to show off his abs. This version keeps “Weird Al” grounded in his modesty, and it’s amusing.
Take Yankovic’s loving parents, who are depicted as the bitter inspiration for his success in this film. Because his father (Toby Huss) is so bent on him having a normal existence “at the workplace,” Yankovic has had to hide his accordion playing (his mother, played by a tender Julianne Nicholson, bought it for him secretly). It’s a flawed setup for the comedy, as it leads to adorable behaviour from little Al and a delightfully exaggerated response from his father once the youngster performs his first parody: “What you’re doing is perplexing, and evil!” On the other hand, it follows in the footsteps of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a previous music biographical comedy that featured such themes as the Tortured Great Musician, who is continually searching for his or her parents’ approval.
The Al Yankovic biopic “Weird” is, nonetheless, a “wildly deviates from the source material and introduces its own concepts. This break occurs around the time when Yankovic’s real-life mentor, Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), gives him guacamole laced with LSD, causing the animated Yankovic to go on an acid trip and write a song called “Eat It,” which the real Yankovic and Will Forte (as smarmy executives) later confirm is “100% original.” People magazine has named this “Weird Al” the “Sexiest Man Alive” because of his meteoric rise to fame. There are rumours that he wears a necklace made of little platinum records during his conversation with Oprah (Quinta Brunson).
Yankovic has innumerable gems that are very literate parodies of a band’s entire record; they just don’t play on the radio, thus a plot line about this “Weird Al” wishing to henceforth solely write original songs is especially brilliant. In this rendition, “Weird Al” is convinced that he will never be taken seriously as a musician unless he starts writing his own songs. For this movie to work, it would need retconning the entirety of popular music.
The plotline regularly zigzags and then goes turbo on a bit for 10 minutes, and the screenplay is full of such wonderful fakeouts and downplays that it never feels like it’s just stretching its “Funny or Die” sketch beginnings and loses momentum as a result. By avoiding the more formal narrative game that has undone countless “Saturday Night Live” movies and made that word a modern insult, “Weird” manages to avoid the criticism that it is simply a longer version of a skit. The editing, influenced by the beats of “Airplane!,” leads to some fantastic payoffs (among them, a number of quite astounding references to a character named a “hay kid”). It’s one of Yankovic’s most wholesome-extreme jokes, and the way it ends will have you gasping and laughing out loud. I was moved to tears by the end credits.
Radcliffe’s portrayal of Yankovic is spot-on in every respect, beginning with the actor’s mastery of his own creative image (“Swiss Army Man”). He’s the final piece in what makes this sendup of Yankovic’s squeaky-clean image so hilarious: a childlike purity that quickly gives way to cocky superiority. Radcliffe’s portrayal of Yankovic fits in well when he is unexpectedly thrust into a grand action scene, and his physicality and game-nature contribute to the film’s overall comedic and joyful tone. Radcliffe’s rendition is obscene without breaking the no-cussing rule that makes Yankovic’s clean while pushing the limits of his visual lyrics.
The decision to have Yankovic lip-sync Radcliffe’s “Weird Al” performances throughout the film serves to remind viewers that they are watching a storyteller whose work is truly stupid, knows his audience will understand the joke, and is comfortably unhinged. Yankovic’s darker themes, such as macabre delusions (in “Good Old Days”), extreme violence (in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”), and crushing heartache (in “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”), are applied to humorous set-pieces that often go further than you think. Yankovic scholars like Nathan Rabin and Lily E. Hirsch have written extensively about Yankovic, but new and longtime fans who want a more accurate telling of his story will have to track down the “Behind the Music” episode about Yankovic (a collection of anecdotes about his nearly subversive sobriety).
However, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” does not include any of the aforementioned works; instead, it focuses primarily on the greatest hits tape that converted this writer over two decades ago. However, it has a more consistent tone with the grandiose album closers Yankovic has included at the end of his more recent albums, such as his dedication to Frank Zappa, “Genius in France.” Like that nine-minute (also self-deprecating) song, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” allows the level of craftiness to quietly speak for itself. Only a subset of “Weird Al” as created by Yankovic survives, but it contains the ideals that have kept him popular for so long: the belief that a (great) parody is an act of mastery, and the conviction that the willingness to be foolish is an unconventional but beneficial way to achieve brilliance.