In 2010, comedian and TV writer Eric Appel directed a short video for the website Funny or Die: a fake trailer for a nonexistent biopic of the pop-song parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. In the next dozen years, Yankovic took to playing the film during costume changes at his live concert appearances, and audiences loved it, many demanding to know when the real movie was coming out. More than a decade later, Appel has heeded that call, pairing with Yankovic as director and co-screenwriter to create a feature-length spoof that imagines the ascent of the accordion-squeezing phenom as a combination of inspirational showbiz biopic and deranged action thriller. Though it wears out its welcome in one dreary stretch midway through, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (which premieres on the free, ad-supported streaming service the Roku Channel on Friday) is an appropriately goofy tribute to its subject and co-creator: a movie parody about the life of a parodist.
In an early scene, a young Al (played as a preteen by Richard Aaron Anderson) scandalizes his traditionally-minded parents (Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson) by improvising new words to “Amazing Grace” at the dinner table: “Amazing grapes/ How sweet the juice … ” When his stern father declares the creation of new lyrics for familiar songs “confusing and evil,” Al is forced to pursue his passion in secret—until, at a teenage polka party, he (played now by David Bloom) wows his formerly bullying classmates with a shredding accordion solo.
Next thing he knows, Al (played from here forward by Daniel Radcliffe) is forming a band with his three doofus roommates and taking the music world by storm. In this movie’s revisionist version of pop history, Yankovic’s parodies are so popular they surpass the hits they send up on the Billboard charts, and big names clamor for him to record alternate versions of their songs to give their own careers a boost. A poolside industry party hosted by Al’s real-life mentor, the radio host Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), and attended by such ’80s luminaries as Gallagher (Paul F. Tompkins), Pee-wee Herman (Jorma Taccone), and the growly-voiced DJ Wolfman Jack (a hilarious Jack Black) is one of the movie’s high points, culminating in Al’s on-the-spot improvisation of his immortal Queen parody “Another One Rides the Bus.”
Radcliffe has reinvented himself in recent years as a skilled comic actor with a good eye for the kind of offbeat roles that suit him: His supporting turn as an absurdly entitled tech billionaire was one of the high points of this year’s The Lost City, and before the directing duo known as the Daniels scored a surprise blockbuster with this year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, Daniel Radcliffe starred in their debut film, Swiss Army Man, as the farting corpse named in the title. For Weird’s ludicrously flimsy conceit to remain funny for an hour and 40 minutes—which, to its credit, it very nearly does—the actor playing Al needs sincerity and sweetness as well as comedic chops. Radcliffe throws himself into the part with complete commitment, somehow selling us on Al’s single-minded passion to become, in his words, “maybe not technically the best, but arguably the most famous accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music.”
In its blithe disregard both for the real facts of Yankovic’s life and for music history—not to mention all principles of logic—Weird at times resembles the 1980s comedy empire of the Zucker brothers, creators of Airplane! and the Naked Gun trilogy. This is a fitting tone for the faux biopic of a man who appeared in all three of the Naked Gun movies. It’s also, sometimes to this movie’s detriment, well-trodden comic territory; between Walk Hard (still the Citizen Kane of fake-musician biopics) and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, audiences have become familiar with the joke-a-minute takeoff of the bathos-ridden Behind the Music template.
The careening momentum of the movie’s first hour slows when Al hooks up with a scheming Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who seduces him in order to further her own career by convincing him to parody one of her songs. Somehow this dalliance leads the couple into a shootout with the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro)—a stretch of the movie that leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth, both because of the over-the-top violence and because of the implicit sexism in the portrayal of Madonna as a femme fatale who pours liquor down the throat of the innocent Al. This subplot seems intended as an attempt to poke fun at the cliché of the “bad influence” in show-business biopics rather than a jab at the Material Girl herself, but given that Madonna is the movie’s only female character besides Al’s mother, the unfortunate effect is to reinforce misogynistic stereotypes as much as it is to spoof them.
Weird redeems itself in the final act with a deliriously silly onstage performance of the Coolio sendup “Amish Paradise” and a climactic scene at a music awards show (with Prince in the audience crossing his fingers in hope of winning the prize that goes to the triumphant Al). In the audience is a once skeptical, now awed record executive, played by the real-life Yankovic (who also appears as himself in an outlandish end-credit sequence that engages in a Tarantino-esque rewriting of pop history). By way of an acceptance speech, Al counsels his listeners to “live the life you want to live. Be as weird as you wanna be.” Coming at the end of a movie that leaves few possibilities for a joke unexplored, it’s a rare flight of straight-from-the-heart sincerity, and not a bad design for living.