“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” treats the indulgent, clichéd rock biopic genre like the joke it is

The king of Top 40 parodies gives us a highly falsified, frequently hilarious "history" of his life and career

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 4, 2022 3:00PM (EDT)

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story first look poster (Photo courtesy of Roku)
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story first look poster (Photo courtesy of Roku)

Weird Al Yankovic probably suspects that some will sit down to watch "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" with the belief that it's an honest biopic.

Some folks clearly don't know enough about Yankovic's expertise as a satirist as well as parodist, alongside his world-class accordion-playing skills. He may be the biggest-selling comedy recording artist of all time, with hits in each of the last four decades, but Weird Al's genius extends beyond simply changing the lyrics of popular tunes to be funnier.

Over the last decade, he's used both his musical and critical chops to take swings at political lunacy and the accelerated decline of social graces thanks to social media and instantaneous communication, on top of generating online content, directing videos and writing children's books.

Hence, any Weird Al Yankovic contribution to the rock and roll biopic genre, a constituent of filmmaking that takes itself far too seriously, should be expected to zealously lampoon its clichés and indulgences. Yankovic and his "Weird" co-writer and director Eric Appel have a surfeit of tropes served up in recent cinematic hits to choose from, guaranteeing that people will find his origin story has plenty in common with that of any rock star interesting enough to have a movie made about them.

His highly public tumble into substance abuse looks a great deal like Jim Morrison's onstage crack-up in "The Doors." Much like Johnny Cash ("Walk The Line"), this Weird Al had an abusive father who, like the Elton John of "Rocketman," misunderstood his humor and affection for loud tropical-patterned shirts.

This is a highly falsified, frequently hilarious "history."

"Your father and I had a long talk," Mary Yankovic (Julianne Nicholson) tells little Al after he demonstrates an affinity for making up funnier lyrics to famous songs, "and we agreed it would be best for all of us if you just stop being who you are and doing the things you love."

Nevertheless, she secretly buys him an accordion which he plays like the genius he is. And the rest, as they say, is a highly falsified, frequently hilarious "history."

Weird: The Al Yankovic StoryWeird: The Al Yankovic Story (Photo courtesy of Roku)

Somehow all of this seems plausible for the few minutes or so that "Weird" plays it straight before dialing up the absurdity meter to a full bizarro boil that propels us into an alternate universe where Weird Al, played by Daniel Radcliffe, is one of the most famous rock stars on the planet.

Radcliffe's post-"Harry Potter" career has taken on a wonderfully unexpected direction via comedies like this one, including his turns as powerfully flatulent corpse in "Swiss Army Man" and unwilling action hero in "Guns Akimbo." For a movie like this to work, it requires an actor who isn't merely playing against type but is utterly serious about pushing satire as far as its membrane will stretch.

Radcliffe is a perfect choice. He captures the sly intellect of Yankovic's style through a seriously committed performance that edges towards buffoonish sweetness when it needs to, which only sells the surreality of "Weird" more effectively.

Starting by showing young Al's mother chiding him for listening to Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) on the radio, the movie establishes Yankovic's renegade oddity as a product of rebellion. His vindictive father wishes his son would simply give up — before he's even gotten started in life — and work with him at a factory that makes … who knows what? As far as anyone can tell, its primary product is amputees and disability claims.

Somehow, though, Al finds a way to believe in himself, finding inspiration in the mundane — bologna sandwiches, rocky road ice cream — to rise from being a secret whiz at the devil's squeezebox to becoming one of the most successful rock stars of our time.

Just when we think we're watching a fairly standard send-up of rock star flicks, "Weird" transforms into an entirely different type of flick that involves Pablo Escobar ("Broad City" alum Arturo Castro).

Weird: The Al Yankovic StoryWeird: The Al Yankovic Story (Photo courtesy of Roku)

"Weird" began as a Funny or Die trailer released in 2010 starring Aaron Paul as Weird Al and featuring, among other stars, Mary Steenburgen and Gary Cole as his doubting parents. But Radcliffe is a better choice to play him — he has the ability to radiate a geniality like his subject's, similarly crystallized in the scenes the actor shares with Yankovic, who plays a skeptical record label executive.

A few of the stranger details in the movie are based in truth although not recreated to the letter, which is part of the gag.

Evan Rachel Wood shows up as a hilarious succubus version of Madonna, part of a deep bench of stars collaborating to create a world where the likes of Pee-wee Herman and Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) have as much pull in the record industry as Clive Davis, and where Weird Al is important enough to merit an intimate profile by Oprah Winfrey (Quinta Brunson). (Winfrey did feature Yankovic on an episode of "AM Chicago" in 1984, but he didn't wear his platinum records around his neck or live in a tacky gilded mansion.)

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Indeed, a few of the stranger details in the movie are based in truth, although not recreated to the letter, which is part of the gag.

Yankovic nods at this in the original song he wrote for "Weird" that plays during the end credits. "If it's in a movie, it's gotta be true!" he sings in one verse, following that a few lines later with, "Yeah, that's how it all went down bro/ We proof-checked every fact."

"Weird" can be messy, which is to be expected of a movie about a musician and comedian for whom nothing is off-limits — except, maybe, the work of artists who refuse to play along with his parodies. But its disorder is essential to its goofiness and to its mission of turning a mad blend of facts into a wild fabrication.

By the end, it should be obvious that this is more of a tall tale than a biography, and that's fine. The reality of a rock star's story is often more sobering than the fantasy built around them. Whether that's true of Yankovic may be revealed in another work. He's in control of this one, and we'll happily laugh along.

"Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" debuts on the Roku Channel on Friday, November 4.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Daniel Radcliffe Evan Rachel Wood Movies Music Review "weird Al" Yankovic