The saga begins
If I told you that I was going to make a movie set in the early 20th century in which a large boat hits an iceberg and sinks, you’d say, “oh, like Titanic?” And you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s a niche that’s permanently associated with that specific film. (I would use Groundhog Day as an example for single-day time loops, but then the last ten years happened.)
It’s a similar situation for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. It is an outrageous parody of prestige, award-baiting musical biopics. This is exactly what Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story did back in 2007. Walk Hard didn’t just take a swing at musical biopics, it gave them a TKO, hilariously tearing to shreds every formulaic beat of the well-trod arc, from the troubled backstory, to the meteoric rise, to the strife at the top, to the redemptive movie-closing performance that signals salvation and eternal fame.
Thus, when I say that Weird is “like Walk Hard but not quite as good,” that’s not just a qualitative comparison but a description of the cinematic objectives of the film. Despite some flashes of comic genius, a great lead performance, and the novel twist of putting a real person on the face of the spoof, it’s still just following in the footsteps of the One True musical biopic parody.
Conceptually, the big difference Weird and Walk Hard is that Weird is built around a real-life musician and catalog of music. This is the story of “Weird” Al Yankovic (played by Daniel Radcliffe), and if you know anything about him it’s probably used as a riff in this film: He plays the accordion. He writes goofy new lyrics to existing pop songs. His last name is difficult to pronounce. He is enduringly popular to nerds. He sings a lot about food. It’s all here in this movie, but, as mentioned, this is a parody, so everything has been outrageously fabricated. This is not “based on a true story” so much as it takes a few basic biographical parameters and builds a piece of unabashed fiction around it.
The biggest and best joke in Weird is that the entire pop music world is centered around weirdo comedians and parody singers. There’s a party where all the music hotshots are gathered, but it’s not the likes of Prince and Whitney Houston there, but instead Gallagher (the watermelon smashing pumpkins), Doctor Demento, Pee Wee Herman, and Tiny Tim. I won’t ruin the list of cameos here, because seeing which comedians pop in is a real treat, and they’re all well-cast.
I’d say that that hits on the biggest textural difference between Walk Hard and Weird; the former focuses much more on the outrageousness of Dewey Cox as a character than the world itself, while Weird presents the arc of its protagonist with a half-straight face, but it in a world completely upside down from ours.
Much of the movie follows Al’s (completely invented) affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who hopes to use the popularity of Al’s parody writing to get her own music career to take off. That’s another great, recurring gag in Weird — the idea that typical pop musicians build their worldview around the parodies and not vice versa. (An elaborate setup to introducing Michael Jackson might be my favorite gag in the whole film.)
Radcliffe is electric as Yankovic. We’ve known for years that Radcliffe has a knack for strangeness on screen, and he absolutely lives up to it here. Yankovic’s voice is very obviously piped in during the musical performance scenes — I’m not sure if the obvious seams between Radcliffe’s talking voice and singing voice are meant to be a joke in and of themselves, but if so, it’s played very straight. Wood is another acting highlight, giving this fictional Madonna more grounding than she really needs.
The story takes a turn for the bananas in the third act, toying with action movie tropes as much as musical biopic ones for a few scenes. The escalation to increasingly implausible scenarios is half the fun.
It’s a movie that works, but can’t quite do enough to escape that John C. Reilly-shaped shadow it lives in. Regardless, it’s an enjoyable tribute to a legend whose career can be viewed in almost mythic terms without exaggeration. Weird Al has been relevant and productive in the silly music space for 40 years now, so he deserves something like this.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film