As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Eric Appel’s directorial feature debut, ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Evan Rachel Wood. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
It’s not clear which angel (or demon) is responsible, but between Elvis and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, 2022 is really shaping up as one heck of a year for music biopics. And while the latter doesn’t reach the euphoric heights of the former (few things can, at this point), Weird still succeeds in delivering a heaping charcuterie board of crowd-pleasing cheese. But whether or not that’s what the Doctor Demento ordered will largely depend on how much you love playing one-hit wonders on repeat over and over again.
Surprising nobody, a film about the life of the preeminent parody artist is extremely, extremely goofy. A send-up both of the music biopic genre and its own subject, Weird approaches the broad stroke chapters of Alfred Matthew Yankovic’s life with the same reverence and respect its titular artist approaches chart-topping singles. The truth is there, kind of. But it’s all much, much sillier.
Thanks to the efforts of an enterprising traveling salesman, little Alfie comes into possession of the devil’s squeezebox that sets him on the path to international superstardom. After years spent as a closeted accordion player, Al (Daniel Radcliffe) is shocked when his musical talents blow his classmates’ socks off at an underground polka party. Maybe he should give this whole “being a musician” thing a shot, huh? Some improbable lightning strikes of inspiration and one well-timed bologna sandwich later, Al and his band catch the eye of a local novelty radio DJ (Rainn Wilson as the Monopoly Man as Doctor Demento), who is keen to help Al capitalize on his niche of taking pre-existing songs and changing the lyrics to be way, way sillier.
Before you can say, “oh wow, a full-size replica of Weird Al as Louis XIV,” Weird Al finds that fame and fortune don’t make up for a childhood of parental neglect. Meanwhile, desperate for the much-coveted “Weird Al” bump in sales, a succubus-like Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) enters the picture to stir the pot.
Directed by Eric Appel, Weird benefits greatly from the man of the hour himself, who acts both as a producer and a co-writer alongside Appel (Weird Al also shows up in a supporting role where his lack of a curly mop honestly makes him hard to clock at first, so I won’t spoil it here). Indeed, in part because of its origins as a Funny or Die sketch and its status as a mockery of the kind of movies that relish celebrity walk-ons, Weird is absolutely littered with cameos. And apart from an early jumpscare from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Weird mostly gets away with gratuitous cameo murder. Namely, because having a comically non-stop parade of comedy people (Jack Black! Scott Aukerman! Nina West!) show up as off-brand weirdos from pop culture history is a bit unto itself.
Pacing-wise, Weird very much plays like a film with two distinct halves: with the first act devoted to a much more low-key story about how obviously awesome Weird Al is because, not in spite, of his quirks. In its latter half, after Weird Al has struck gold (and platinum), the film explicitly pokes fun at Oscar-baiting music biopics (you know, your Judys and your Bohemian Rhapsodys). As you’d expect from Yankovic, Weird hits all the genre’s tropes with ease: Al is desperate for the approval his parents never gave him; Al nosedives into narcotics with the help of his parasitic girlfriend; Al pushes away the people who care about him only to, ultimately, come crawling back after seeing the error of his ways. You know the drill.
Weird’s send-up of music biopics is formally fine… arguably to its detriment. A famously likable and family-friendly person like Weird Al torpedoing their career is a funny gag in a three-minute Funny or Die sketch. But devoting 45-minutes to the bit of making someone we love really unlikable becomes tiresome and frankly unfun after a while.
This is a shame because Daniel Radcliffe’s commitment to being a little weirdo is easily one of the film’s biggest boons. And when the specificity of him being Weird Al fades away into “music guy who is mean because fame is hard,” the joy of watching him on screen begins to fade. When he’s playing an exaggerated version of Weird Al, Radcliffe is a genuine delight to watch. When the film makes him do a drunken, hate-filled, shirtless rant, it’s funny for, like, five seconds, and then it starts to feel like you’re actually just watching The Doors.
Does Weird say anything new, satirically, that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story didn’t say 15 years ago? No. But if you meet Weird on its own goofy terms as a feature-length version of a Funny or Die sketch with one joke, you’re bound to have a chuckle or two.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story will be streaming for free on the Roku Channel as of November 4th, 2022. You can check out the trailer here.