Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Writers: “Weird Al” Yankovic and Eric Appel
Director: Eric Appel
Streaming on Roku
Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
At times devilishly clever, too often disappointingly obvious, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story will delight Weird Al’s legions of fans, amuse hard-core movie nerds, and leave just about everyone else scratching their heads, asking, “Wait…did that parody song guy really rescue Madonna from the clutches of Pablo Escobar?”
Weird Al Yankovic didn’t invent song parody. Arguably, the great Allan Sherman’s 1963 classic “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)” — set to the tune of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” — stands forever as the Gold Standard for fake lyrics overlaying a famous melody.
And Yankovic isn’t even the first guy to send up the movie biography genre — Woody Allen did it ingeniously in 1969’s Take the Money and Run.
But as far as I can tell, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is the first film in which a star turns the laser of satire on his own life story, fictionalizing it preposterously at every turn, simultaneously poking fun at himself in particular and movie conventions in general.
When it works here, it works spectacularly. Especially in the early going — when we meet young Al hiding under his bed covers, hoping his disapproving parents won’t catch him listening to novelty songs on Dr. Demento’s 1970s radio show — Yankovic and his co-writer/director Eric Appel (TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) match every beat of every my-family-didn’t-understand-me biopic ever made. Later, as little Al’s father furiously condemns his son’s love for the accordion, Appel dutifully cues the swelling music, the lingering closeups, the bitten lips stifling unconfessed parental regrets.
It’s all pretty perfect; a joke that played hilariously about 12 years ago, when Yankovic and Appel first told it in a memorable fake movie trailer they made for the website Funny or Die. But that version ran barely three minutes. Spinning the gag out to nearly two hours cannot help but yield extended periods when even the most devoted Weird Al fans have to ask themselves: Is this trip necessary?
The pair have enlisted a dream cast, and for the most part they put the gang to good use. Continuing to forge a resume that leaves Harry Potter far behind, Daniel Radcliffe makes a perfect Weird Al, gangly and perpetually incredulous. As Al’s main squeeze Madonna (!), Evan Rachel Wood freezes the singer at the cultural moment when she projected the epitome of the Bad Girl: an ambitious, gum-snapping, man-eating sexpot. Rainn Wilson (The Office) pops up as Dr. Demento, Weird Al’s mentor (who also casually laces Al’s drink with LSD to expand his creative vision).
Look closely and a gallery of welcome familiar faces flicker across the screen, among them Will Forte as an abusive record executive, Patton Oswalt as a heckler, Conan O’Brien as Andy Warhol and Jack Black as Wolfman Jack.
The film’s most welcome dive into alternate reality comes about halfway through, after Weird Al has inexplicably become the most famous performer on the planet — as well as an insufferable bore, rattling aimlessly around his palatial home. Forsaking his song parody past in favor of creating his own original, soaring compositions, he is enraged to learn that a singer named Michael Jackson has made a music video called “Beat It”— parodying Al’s chart-topping original song “Eat It.”
Al’s resulting epic meltdown makes the familiar crashes-and-burns of A Star is Born and The Rose seem like professional fender benders. He goes onstage drunk, insults his audience, fires his loyal band, and takes a menial job at the factory where his disapproving father always said he’d wind up.
That would have been enough — indeed, it should have been — but Appel and Yankovic for some reason feel the need to interrupt their rags-to-riches-to-rags-and-back saga with an extraneous adventure movie parody: After Madonna is kidnapped by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (funny Arturo Castro), the singer bolts to the jungles of Colombia for a bloody, over-the-top shoot-out.
The scene is okay; it plays a lot like a segment from Weird Al’s much-loved 1989 cult comedy, UHF. But while that low-budget early project was an intentional smorgasbord of cheesy comedy bits, it has no place in Weird, which professes to tell a cohesive, if pleasingly stupid, story.
I promised myself I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time dissecting Weird, which is, after all, intended to be little more than an ephemeral diversion. And the film apparently delivers exactly what Weird Al’s most ardent fans want: Weird won the Audience Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Still, I can’t help but feel that Weird, which should have been an agreeably streamlined Soap Box Derby car of fun, instead rolls off the assembly line as a cinematic Edsel — defiantly unserious, yet bristling with bells and whistles nobody asked for.
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