When I saw that Funny or Die, “Weird Al” Yankovic and screenwriter and director Eric Appel would be expanding their beloved 2010 fake trailer Weird: The Al Yankovic Story into a feature film for the Roku Channel I sensed that it would do for wildly melodramatic musical biopics what Al’s cult 1985 video The Compleat Al did for rockumentaries: use Al’s wholesome, family friendly mythology as a hilariously incongruous vessel to parody the excesses and indulgences of life at the top of the rock and roll food chain.
The Compleat Al ends in 1985 with a narrator contemplating a future for its subject no one could have envisioned would be quite so bright or as filled with achievement. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story audaciously also ends in 1985 and even more audaciously closes by imagining an alternate past for Al in which he is gunned down by an assassin at the Shrine Auditorium at the height of his youthful powers.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and The Compleat Al have so much in common that they feel like two sides of the same coin. They are complementary bookends to an extraordinary life and career that is far from over. One was created in the heat of that glorious cultural moment, when MTV and the public at large were in thrall to Al and his unique music alchemy. The other is a retrospective endeavor from a revered elder comic statesman looking back at a four decade plus career in film, television, albums and the live stage with surreal irreverence.
The Compleat Al has the scruffy, homemade charm and personality of a first album like Al’s self-titled debut, which is fueled by a punky, New Wave sense of energy and anger rather than professionalism or polish. It’s the work of some very talented young minds, including writer-director Robert K. Weiss, whose filmography as a hotshot producer at that point already included The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Blues Brothers and Police Squad!, Al, Al’s manager Jay Levey, who would go on to direct and co-write UHF, and Jay’s friend Hamilton Cloud, learning by doing.
The Compleat Al is raw. It’s cheap. It’s gloriously homemade. That “Let’s put on a show” quality is what makes it so wonderful and weirdly enduring. Al was overflowing with energy, ideas and ambition at that point in his career, when he was the clown prince of MTV and coming off the back to back triumphs of 1984’s In 3-D and 1985’s Dare To Be Stupid.
Al is anything but an enthusiastic amateur these days. In my book The Weird Accordion to Al I codified the current stage of Al’s career as his Age of Mastery. He has spent over four decades refining his craft as a professional singer, songwriter, accordion player, screenwriter, director, producer and actor.
Al is a jack of all trades. He’s a master of all as well. Al’s contemporary work consequently benefits from the half century of furious labor that he’s put into being the funniest and most versatile performer possible.
The Compleat Al and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story are also, on some level, about the way we deify performers in their twenties, particularly if they are blessed and cursed to die some time between their twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth birthdays.
We never value anyone quite as much as we do rock stars, rappers and movie stars in their twenties. It’s almost invariably seen as a golden age, when the most beautiful and gifted among us are at their unassailable heights.
It is perhaps not coincidental that The Compleat Al and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story contain lengthy set-pieces satirizing members of the 27 Club named Jim. The Compleat Al opens with a pitch-perfect spoof of Jimi Hendrix setting his electric guitar ablaze in a sacred sacrificial ritual. Only instead of the coolest guy ever to play the guitar lost in a psychedelic frenzy, The Compleat Al opens with an obsessed and seemingly possessed Al setting his squeeze box ablaze in front of a Woodstock-style throng
In Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, meanwhile, Al, or rather “Al” responds to his saintly band-members’ concern over his problem drinking and bottomless appetite for self-destruction by drunkenly, shirtlessly antagonizing a crowd for being gullible enough to worship false gods like himself.
The visual gag of replacing the guitar with the accordion as the visual centerpiece of a rock band is a seemingly limited joke that somehow never gets old because Al and his collaborators never stop finding inspired variations.
There’s a sturdy template for rock star biopics because there is a sturdy template for rock stars. We not only expect pop stars to behave like drunken, drugged-up, over-sexed, wildly irresponsible train wrecks hurtling towards oblivion; we angrily demand it as well.
When a rock star deviates from the cliche as much as Al does we’re impressed and surprised but also, on some level, disappointed. Being sober, responsible, cautious and scandal-free goes against the whole ethos of rock and roll.
The Compleat Al and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story give us a version of Al who embodies the hedonistic excess of rock and roll to a parodic extreme, an ambition-crazed lunatic pin-balling around the upper echelons of fame and stardom in a bleary, delusional haze.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story begins not at the beginning but rather at the most melodramatic moment of fake Al’s entirely excessive existence. We open with Al dying, and not for the final time either. The twenty-something Al (Daniel Radcliffe) is rushed to a hospital where a surgeon who dramatically takes off his mask to reveal the familiar visage of Lin-Manuel Miranda declares his patient dead.
Al roars back to life and, with a look of preternatural determination, angrily demands a number two pencil. The film’s faux Al writes about his truth but since he’s an accordion-playing goofball with a predilection for writing silly spoof lyrics about food and television, that means hand-crafting autobiographical songs about making a bologna sandwich and doctors whose lives and careers are pure Catskills comedy.
That’s the glory of being in your twenties. Your body is so powerful and resilient that you can LITERALLY DESTROY IT and it bounces right back.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story opens and closes with sequences where “Weird Al” Yankovic, who I can personally vouch is NOT DEAD, dies a dramatic death. One he recovers from dramatically. He’s not quite so lucky the second time around but it is now canon that in addition to dying in 1985 Al is now a zombie but also, somehow, a recording artist involved in the film industry.
But I am getting ahead of myself. We then rewind back to Al’s childhood, where he is a baby-faced charmer played by a perfectly cast Richard Aaron Anderson and chafing under the harsh rule of angry, violent and restrictive dad Nick (Toby Huss).
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is the best Zucker Brothers movie the Zucker Brothers never made because Appel and Al understand, as the Zucker Brothers did in their prime, that the key to a gut-busting spoof lies in playing everything as straight and as deadpan as possible. In Huss, the filmmakers have a veteran funnyman who is also a talented dramatic actor with credits like Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn.
Huss delivers a deeply satisfying dramatic performance as a hard, tough, deeply scarred survivor who doesn’t know how to avoid subjecting his son to the trauma and toxic dysfunction he grew up with that also has the benefit of being genuinely hilarious.
He’s perfectly matched by Julianne Nicholson as Al’s doting mother Mary, who has a genius for expressing the least supportive sentiments imaginable in the sweetest tone possible. She’s at once a kind, loving mother who goes behind her husband’s back to buy him an accordion and a scold who admonishes her son to stop being himself and doing the things that he loves. She later feels honor-bound to tell her approval-seeking progeny that his father DEFINITELY isn’t proud of him, still thinks accordions and parodies are dumb, and, for good measure, regrets reproducing in the first place.
In rock biopics, rock and roll is the devil’s music. That’s what makes it so great! The key difference is that the rock enraging the Lord and delighting the devil here is not the sweaty, libidinous rebellion of Elvis Presley but rather a geek from Lynwood with an accordion singing parody lyrics about processed food, public transportation and incompetent medical professionals.
Al’s life changes forever when a door-to-door accordion salesman played by Al’s close personal friend Thomas Lennon, in a sunny parody of The Music Man’s Harold Hill, tries to sell young Al an accordion, only to get viciously beaten by Nick Yankovic after Al’s father angrily inquires, “Why is my innocent young child wearing that devil’s squeeze box?”
In my 2020 book The Weird Accordion to Al I write about the darkness and brutality in Al’s music, of the regular blasts of ultra-violence and insanity that fill his discography. Nick Yankovic not just physically assaulting but BRUTALLY beating a stranger, nearly to death, for the ostensible crime of trying to sell young Al an unwieldy, unhip musical instrument embodies this bracingly dark comedy in cinematic form.
That the accordion salesman is played by seemingly the nicest, sunniest man in show-business adds to the deliberately over-the-top sadism. True to form, Lennon’s squeeze box-selling charlatan very pleasantly and considerately bleeds nearly to death internally while Al and his mother enjoy a nice moment of connection when she agrees to buy an accordion for her son.
When we next see Al, he is a teenager, with all of the confusion, drama and hormones that come with the crucible of adolescence. For teen Al, the accordion has become an instrument of destiny. When Al’s friends sneak him out to a polka party where beautiful girls debate polka-playing accordionists the way teens in more straightforward rock biopics argue over the merits of the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, he is mortified.
Then someone gives him an accordion and everything changes. Al encounters his share of cynics in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Beginning with his parents, the fictional Al must endure the skepticism of doubters who do not think that someone can single-handedly change music forever with just an accordion, new, food-based lyrics to pre-existing compositions and the truth.
They are invariably proven wrong even when Al does not have the magical power of parody at his disposal. Al first blows square’s minds in Weird: The Al Yankovic at the aforementioned polka party with fiendishly proficient accordion playing.
When people watch Al perform here it’s as if they have been deaf from birth and just experienced sound for the first time in the form of the greatest, most transcendent music ever created. It’s as if they’ve just had the honor of hearing Joni Mitchell sing, Chuck D. rap or the Sex Pistols in all their feral glory and their conception of what art is capable of has just expanded immeasurably.
We next leap forward in time to Al’s college days. Freed from the tyranny of his parent’s rules, Al (now played by Daniel Radcliffe) can do anything that he wants and what he wants to do is parody the top pop hits of the day.
Al is struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration while listening to The Knack’s “My Sharona” and making a bologna sandwich for his roommates, who turn out to also be his future bandmates: drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz (Tommy O’Brien), guitarist Jim “Kimo” West (Jack Lancaster) and bassist Steve Jay (Spenser Treat Clark).
As if touched by the very hand of God, Al begins murmuring, with a sense of divine purpose, “M-M-M-M-M-My bologna!” in tune with The Knack’s manic ode to sexual depravity. This leads his future guitarist to gasp of Al’s hastily composed tribute to Oscar Meyer, “I don’t know if it comes from God or the devil but the world needs to hear it!”
Al has a homemade hit on The Captain Buffoon Show but record executive Tony Scotti (“Weird Al” Yankovic) hips him to one of the harsh realities of the business: in order to be truly successful, an artist needs to have more than one song.
So Al goes to a rough bar whose clientele he sums up nervously but accurately as a “whiskey and heroin crowd” to play his new song, an infectious anthem about frozen desserts parodying Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.”
Al is terrified of the crowd but overjoyed to learn that not only are his roommates very nice; they’re also a terrific band just waiting for the right accordion-playing pop parodist frontman to lead them.
Al, now joined by a band that he would still be performing and recording with decades later, once again turns hecklers into believers when they transform Joan Jett’s tribute to rock and roll into a musical advertisement for chocolate and marshmallow ice cream.
An instant fan (Dot-Marie Jones) is so moved by Al’s words that she angrily orders two scoops of Rum Raisin ice cream from a bartender. When the bartender objects that they do not serve ice cream, she sneers, “You better start selling it before this song’s over or you’re going to have a riot on your hands!”
The next group to be blown away by Al’s talent are some of the silliest celebrities of the Reagan era. Al and his onscreen and real-life mentor Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) are brilliant intellects and true originals but they’re also, on some level, human cartoons from the mid 1980s. If Al had not gone on to defy the odds and have a long and distinguished career there’s a good chance that’s how he would be half-remembered today: as the “Eat It” guy with the Hawaiian shirts and the accordion who made us all chuckle mildly before we as a culture moved on.
In a set-piece spoofing the pool party scene in Boogie Nights, Al is invited to a swinging soiree at Dr. Demento’s palatial abode populated by seemingly every other human cartoon character from the 1980s, including Pee-Wee Herman (Jorma Taccone), Andy Warhol (Conan O’Brien), Tiny Tim (Demetri Martin), Salvador Dali (Emo Phillips), Alice Cooper (Akiva Schaffer), Divine (Nina West) and the late Gallagher (Paul F. Tompkins).
Then Demento’s professional arch-rival Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) swaggers in alongside John Deacon (David Dastmalchian), the bassist from Queen, and challenges Al to make up a parody of “Another One Bites the Dust” on the spot. Let lesser mortals slave away at draft after draft of their precious songs; our hero makes magic happen spontaneously, on the spot, like Jay-Z or Marvin Gaye, but more talented.
Everything about this sequence is gloriously, deliberately preposterous yet there’s a righteous rock and roll defiance to Al and the band’s performance of “Another One Rides the Bus” all the same. It’s the revenge of the nerds over the cool kids. When Dr. Demento taunts Wolfman Jack with the incandescent, undeniable brilliance of his protege’s instant anthem about the indignities of the public transit system it’s purposefully obnoxious but also weirdly badass.
Like everyone lucky enough to hear Al’s life and song-changing lyrics, Wolfman Jack is moved almost to tears. To experience the Weird One in his prime is a borderline religious experience. It CHANGES people.
Deacon offers Al a slot playing with Queen at Live Aid. Al doesn’t just turn down the opportunity of a lifetime for no damn reason at all: he delights in saying no. “HARD PASS” Al sneers at Deacon and his exceedingly kind offer. To add injury to insult, Demento’s minions then tase Wolfman Jack as the partygoers roar their approval.
Gallagher doubts Al but is so moved by his performance of “Another One Rides the Bus” that he smashes a watermelon in celebration, which, tragically, was the only way he could express emotion. Gallagher could never tell his children that he loved them. Instead he had to convey that sentiment indirectly through the theatrical destruction of fruit.
Rock biopics are above all else exercises in finely-wrought pop mythologies. When rock mythology deviates from banal reality, biopics are duty-bound to choose colorful fiction.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story deliberately plays up the artifice and exaggeration of Oscar winners like Ray and Walk the Line, in part by impishly positing itself as one hundred percent truthful. At a certain point, however, Weird doesn’t just flaunt its contempt for reality; it blasts off into an alternate universe altogether.
In this alternate universe Al longs to break free from the prison of spoofing other people’s songs with food-based parody lyrics and create something new and revolutionary: completely original songs with food-based lyrics.
When Demento turns on Al’s tortured imagination by giving him guacamole laced with LSD he undergoes an acid trip to hell and then to heaven in 2-D where he is alternately confronted by his father’s rage and his mentor’s demented benevolence.
It’s a psychedelic journey of discovery. The words that will change Al’s life, and consequently the world, forever, begin with a purposeful refutation of the name brand grocery store detritus that had been his lyrical obsession and muse since “My Bologna” improved on the lyrics to “My Sharona” by not advocating statutory rape.
“Don’t want no Cap’n Crunch! Don’t want no Raisin Bran!” howls Al angrily before his face melts and the gods of rock and roll bless him with the embryonic beginnings of what would become “Eat It.”
In this upside down world, “Eat It” is not a parody of Michael Jackson’s number one smash “Beat It.” Instead, “Beat It” is an elaborate goof on “Eat It.”
When the reel Al learns from the real Al’s pragmatic executive that Michael Jackson has recorded his own version of “Eat It” he is understandably apoplectic. What kind of a monster changes the words to a popular song? With a perfect combination of rage and obliviousness, Al dismisses Michael Jackson as a coattail-riding “has been from the Jackson 5”, leading Tony Scotti to very dryly, hilariously assert that Jackson has had some success as a solo artist, quite possibly the biggest understatement in human history.
Radcliffe’s angry Al asks Tony Scotti what “Beat It” could possibly be about, if not making scrambled eggs and Al responds dryly and hilariously, as well as accurately, “It’s about fighting? Or trying to avoid a fight? I’m not exactly sure.”
It’s a small, subtle, observational moment but it might be my favorite part of the movie both because of the exquisite understatement of Al’s delivery and because it’s true. I’ve always loved “Beat It” and I’ve never had even the foggiest idea of what it’s about because, as Al’s Scotti Brother asserts, it simultaneously seems to be a tough, aggressive song about fighting and gangs and an anti-gang message song.
Looking at the lyrics doesn’t clear anything up yet “Eat It” became a historic smash all the same because when a song sounds that good it doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story affords Al an opportunity to play a sizable supporting role in a movie rather than a cameo and co-write a feature film. He triumphs in both capacities. Playing one of his old bosses gives Al a chance to give the music business the business, the way he did in The Compleat Al, from a place of knowledge and experience alongside Will Forte’s gloriously belligerent Ben Scotti.
By this point a sinister new force has entered Al’s life in the form of Madonna, who Evan Rachel Wood plays as a gleeful parody of the trope of the rock star girlfriend as a destructive force, an evil succubus who attaches herself parasitically to the body of a male pop icon and proceeds to drain him of his life force and will to live.She’s Nancy Spungen, Courtney Love and Yoko Ono to the nth degree.
When he meets Madonna, Al is a teetotaler but she sinks her claws into him and convinces him that the key to success and lasting happiness lies in the over-consumption of hard liquor. Madonna is the demon on Al’s shoulder forever admonishing him to go over to the dark side and destroy his career with booze and bad behavior.
Then Madonna gets kidnapped by the forces of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Seventy-two minutes in, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story turns into not just an action movie but a crazed spoof of macho bloodbaths as Al transforms instantly into a Jason Bourne-like killing machine in his quest to save his famous girlfriend.
Nothing about the first seventy-two minutes of Weird: The Al Yankovic suggests that it will have a body count, let alone easily the biggest body count in the history of musical biopics, satirical or otherwise. Yet Weird: The Al Yankovic nevertheless morphs unexpectedly into a violent revenge movie in its third act.
As played by Arturo Castro with a light, goofy touch, Escobar may be the biggest and most dangerous drug kingpin in the world but he’s also a big silly and a MAJOR “Weird Al” Yankovic fan, so he obviously can’t be all bad.
There’s no reason an hour and forty-seven minute long adaptation of a twelve year old Funny or Die fake trailer should work at all, let alone be so satisfying and well-constructed that you can watch it over and over again without getting bored. The Pablo Escobar subplot seemingly begs for the cutting room floor but if Weird: The Al Yankovic Story did not go too far it would not go far enough. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story had to get too weird in order to be weird enough. Sending its previously pacifistic hero into the jungles of South America to engage in a machine gun-fight with the henchmen of a notorious drug kingpin was a bold way of establishing that Weird: The Al Yankovic Story would be weirder than fans expected and weird in a way they did not anticipate.
Madonna’s spell over Al finally breaks when he risks his life many times over to save her and she repays his sacrifice by proposing that they take over the world’s drug trade in Escobar’s absence.
In a bid to purge himself of the evils of the rock and roll lifestyle Al returns home, where he discovers that the reason his father hates parodies and the accordion is because he was raised Amish but was excommunicated for playing the squeeze box and generally behaving in a weird fashion.
It’s pure tomfoolery that Huss manages to invest with real emotion and pathos. We feel for the confused and lost little boy Al’s fake dad once was, and how he tried to escape the agony of being made to feel different and inferior by embracing conformity, rule-following and the proletarian misery of devoting his life to a factory that seemingly produces only human misery.
Al reconciles with his old man and transforms his pop’s autobiographical writings on his childhood in Amish country into “Amish Paradise.” Our hero is able to unite his personal and professional lives when he performs his new song before winning an award for being the most famous accordion player within an extremely specific genre, a category that apparently pitted him against Prince.
Despite having recently reconnected with his dad, Al nevertheless decides to use his acceptance speech to stick it to his pops all the same. There’s a wonderfully subtle moment where Nick and Mary are watching Al triumph in front of the entire world with a long-overdue sense of pride that starts to morph into something a little darker for Nick when he realizes that his son is, on some level, also antagonizing him. When Radcliffe’s bizzaro Al tells a packed audience at the Shrine auditorium to “live the life you want to live” and to “be as weird as you want to be” before ultimately advising, “You will never know true happiness until you accept yourself”, the context is absurd.
He’s just defeated Prince for the Award for Most Famous Accordion player Within an Extremely Specific Genre and is only moments away from being assassinated onstage by a killer hired by Madonna. Yet Al’s climactic words are genuinely touching in much the same way Walk Hard’s climatic performance of “Beautiful Ride” is at once a perfect parody of anthems that aspire to sum up the complexity, joy, sadness and wonder of life in four tuneful minutes and an enduring anthem that somehow does manage to sum up the complexity, joy, sadness and wonder of life in four tuneful minutes.
Two very unexpected things happen immediately afterwards. We’re informed that “Weird Al” Yankovic, a man I introduced to my eight year old son less than a month ago, was killed at an awards show in 1985, when he was not yet 27, and, in an even weirder, even more personal development, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story essentially becomes one of my books.
The sad, untrue news that “Weird Al” Yankovic is dead, and has been since the middle of the Reagan decade is followed immediately by images from Al’s life. I could be wrong but every single one of the pictures appeared in 2012’s Weird Al: The Book, the coffee table book I worked on with Al and Jon.
I looked at those images over and over and over again when I was assembling Weird Al: The Book. Al and Jon are both guys I know and have had the honor of working with and calling professional colleagues. Yet they are also, weirdly enough, fictional characters in a movie I have now seen three times in its first week of release.
Then the real Al segues inevitably into the reel “Al” and images from Al’s real life that I curated and collected in Weird Al: The Book give way to photoshopped gag photos. The movie is over but the jokes and the laughs keep coming, particularly in the form of “Now You Know”, an original song Al wrote specifically for the movie that ends things on an appropriately meta, demented and mind-melting note.
Within the universe of the film, Al was assassinated in 1985 onstage at the Shrine Auditorium. In “Now You Know”, Al brags that the film was thoroughly fact-checked and everything was 100 percent factual except that Al DID play with Queen at Live Aid and thoroughly upstaged them. .
Al ostensibly wrote the lyrics to “Now You Know” based on both the movie we’ve just watched and his own life. Al co-wrote the screenplay for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story yet in “Now You Know” he still enthuses, “Ah, what a wild ride! How about that part where I died? I was not expecting that!”
The fictional Al’s death at the end of his movie is so surprising and unexpected that it even shocked the fictional, dead and zombified Al himself.
We’ve waited thirty-three years for a follow-up to UHF but it was more than worth the wait. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is weirdly heartfelt as well as hilarious and as dense with detail, ideas and jokes as anything in Al’s oeuvre, musical or otherwise. The film might end with the undead Al promising a zombie apocalypse but Weird: The Al Yankovic brings his career as a filmmaker roaring joyously back to life.
Weird: The Al Yankovic is ultimately a beautiful ride as well as a wild one.
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Big-ass articles, The Weird Accordion To Al, The Big Squeeze
Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood, Jack Black, Rainn Wilson, Dr. Demento, Paul F. Tompkins, Eric Apple, Funny or Die, Toby Huss, Julianne Nicholson, Eric Appel, Walk Hard