Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Lets Daniel Radcliffe Make Demented Magic

Daniel Radcliffe and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story elevates the clichés and tropes of musical biopics to their most mythic extremes.... by adding a polka instrument.

Daniel Radcliffe as Weird Al Yankovic Review
Photo: Roku

Let the title fool you. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is the improbable tale of a young boy who becomes a rock god by playing a polka instrument. And former wizard Daniel Radcliffe brings an entirely new kind of magic to his portrayal of “Weird” Al Yankovic—the type the Weasley twins excelled at. This is not a biopic of a musical parodist. It is a spoof of musical biopics, and this one’s about a lunatic with a strap-on orchestra deluding himself that he’s the life of the party. He fakes it until he makes it, throws it away, and leaves someone else to clean up his mess.

In their respective roles in prior, formulaic rock biopics, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury and Taron Egerton’s Elton John are extremely professional. By contrast, Radcliffe throws himself into the character like he’s never lost amateur standing. He goes full tilt. Radcliffe plays Weird Al as if Harry Potter snorted an accordion and let it transform him into the character. He over-exaggerates the lip-syncs, overemphasizes the character’s early, innocent naiveté and enthusiasm to capture the incredible needs of the man with the accordion, and is overly desperate to be noticed. I must be honest, Radcliffe had me at “Beat on the Brat.”

Similarly, Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t look like Madonna Ciccone. She doesn’t sound like her either. And she doesn’t even walk like her. But she captures the singer’s essence in a satiric turn that’s just the other side of a Christopher Guest movie. Madonna virtually dances into Al’s life, her dazzling eyes magnetically sizing up every room while she pops her gum until it gets lost in his mouth. Wood’s Madonna is the fantasy version that most of the hormonally charged male-run entertainment industry saw her at the time. The film shortcuts this into an extended gag of “Madonnovic” megalomania.

Rainn Wilson brings his usual, this-close-to-creepy charm to Dr. Demento, Al’s “DE-mentor.” He occasionally laughs two beats longer than comfortable, but is otherwise the steadiest cog in an off-the-rails wheel. He keeps the plot grounded. As Al’s biggest fan, Pablo Escobar, Arturo Castro is a surprise. He brings absolutely no menace to the renowned drug lord, filling his personal space with such open bonhomie, and glee to his violence. Will Forte is more frightening as a record executive who refuses to see the slightest appeal in what Weird Al brings to the office. His counterpart is played by the weird one himself.

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There are no caricatures in Weird. Rather the characters have been retrofitted into the roles they would have been designated by a VH1 Behind the Music special, although it plays more like an After-School Special. Directed by Naked Gun filmmaker Eric Apel, who works from a script he co-wrote with Yankovic, Weird is far more cartoony than  previous rock biopic spoof Walk Hard. But then Weird has more material to work from since Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis were all released since Walk Hard. Each of those films feature problematic parenting, therapeutic reckoning, and enough Oscar-worthy arcs for a Shakespearean epic, plusthree soap operas.  

Weird sets the bar far lower, presenting Al’s upbringing as practically Dickensian. Teenage Al (David Bloom) is a shy boy, cowered by his father, Nick (Toby Huss), who lost his hand at his factory job and wants his son to be just like him. In a running gag, no one knows what the factory makes. It may just make men out of little boys who want to squeeze a noise-box all day. Al is indulged by his mother, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), who encourages her son to listen to his father and “stop being who you are and doing the things you love.” Coming off the role of Marylin Monroe’s mother in Blonde, Nicholson’s Mary is a textured character. One minute she is tucking little Al to bed with the less-than-reassuring coo of “Don’t let the bed bugs give you night terrors,” the next she is paying a traveling salesman for a, strictly forbidden, accordion.

The instrument is a character, and the one which gets in the most trouble. It functions allegorically. Al first puts it on like he’s having a coming out party. It is also used as a historical metaphor when Al whips it out in Miami in the film’s Jim Morrison appropriation. Accordions are obscene in the way early rock and roll was offensive below the waist. 

The devil’s squeeze box and the fame it brings get twisted into the expected clichés of cinematic rock star indulgence and redemption. The film begins with a take-off of Forrest Gump’s catchphrase: “Life is like a parody of your favorite songs.” But there’s no chocolate in Weird Al’s box, just a foldable noisemaker. In the film, Yankovic makes almost as big a noise as Elvis or the Beatles.

Appel and Yankovic rewrite history as blatantly as a joke in one of Weird Al’s songs. The strength of the humor lies in its attention to nonsensical detail. Yankovic really did record “My Bologna” in a bathroom for the acoustics. But he probably didn’t ruin a perfectly good lunch by writing it after hearing the Knack’s “My Sharona” as he was making sandwiches for his friends.

One of the highlights is the origin story of “Another One Rides the Bus.” It takes place at a party thrown by Wilson’s Dr. Demento, with fringe artist guests, including famed DJ Wolfman Jack (Jack Black), John Deacon (David Dastmalchian), and Andy Warhol (Conan O’Brien).

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There are some very clever distortions of reality, but some are in themselves parodies of old material. The turning point in the film is when Al records “Eat It” as his first original song. Michael Jackson records a satire of the song called “Beat It.” Because of Al’s history, it is assumed Jackson’s song came first, which is played as a great injustice in the movie.

Watching the “Eat It” sequence we realize, it is almost impossible to overstate the influence Weird Al has had on the musical community. When the Beatles or the New York Dolls came out, thousands of musicians saw what they were doing and said to themselves “we could do that.” Al saw what thousands of people were doing every day, and said, “If only a musician could do that.” They didn’t. Al remains one of a kind. No one wants to walk in his shoes. That’s what is so weird about Weird.

Weird does not keep up the momentum, however. There are some funny individual bits after the halfway point, but once Al hands down the caveat not to replace Howie Mandel with Led Zeppelin,the movie sinks like a water balloon, struggling to maintain the humor for the full 108 minutes.. 

At its core, Weird is a wish fulfillment film. It allows the subject to rip himself scathingly to shreds before anyone can do it for him. Yankovic boasts that he may not be “the best accordion player but certainly the best-known accordion player in an extremely specific genre.” He found his takeoff crossover. The film is original, and funnier than the one-joke movie it could have been because Yankovic’s career is the joke. He wasn’t the first person to realize goofy words over pop songs were just as catchy as the original.

The film opens with an establishing shot centered by a copy of MAD magazine. Weird Al wants you to see he is in on the joke. Today anyone with a dream to “make up the words to a song that already exists,” can put it on YouTube or TikTok and get a million likes. When Al was doing it, he was not doing it alone. Everyone did it in schoolyards or on public transit. He may not have been the best, but he was the loudest. In Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, he gets to proclaim that in the most self-deprecating way, while proudly wearing six platinum records on a chain on his chest, and singing “Jingle bells, Batman smells.” It is a lot of fun, but you might not want to hear the same joke twice.


3.5 out of 5