I didn’t think I’d want to watch a fake biopic, especially not one about a real guy in whom I’m actually interested — which is what Weird: The Al Yankovic Story basically is, a parody biopic about a parody musician. And yet, in throwing out almost everything real, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, strangely cuts right to the quick of the entire musical biopic genre. This is a better movie, a more honest reflection of its subject than Bohemian Rhapsody, parody or not.
Weird, from director Eric Appel, co-written by Yankovic, seems to know intuitively that it’s not actually insight into the subject that biopic audiences are after (assuming biopics sanctioned by the subject’s estate could ever even offer that, most don’t), or to see the subject as a metaphor for the American dream, or whatever. It’s simpler than that. We want to hear them play the hits. And maybe that’s less reductive and more pure than trying to dissect Johnny Cash or whoever in order to find the genius button.
The trailer was cute, of course, but I honestly didn’t know how long I’d be able to watch a series of (deliberately) dopey sketches about a series of dopey songs. And yet Weird ended up being not just cute or funny, but strangely thrilling, in the way earnest biopics are supposed to be. Even with loads of bullshit in between, fake origin stories for songs that consist entirely of Weird Al changing the lyrics of a hit pop song so that it’s about breakfast now, I still got the same weird goosebumps as when Eazy E nails the first line of “Boyz N Tha Hood” in Straight Outta Compton. I’m serious, actual goosebumps, at the sight of Daniel Radcliffe as a mall Santa version of Weird Al (as in, bearing all the identifiable totems of the persona but not really going for verisimilitude) leading a biker bar in “I Love Rocky Road.”
Why does this happen? Sure, partly it’s the same thrill of recognition Marvel piggies get when their favorite Millennium Kid makes a cameo in the new Galaxy Fox movie, but I also think there’s something about watching someone carve order from chaos. That there’s something weirdly gratifying about knowing exactly how a song is going to turn out and then having to wait for the characters themselves to discover it. It’s like watching a baby learn to walk. There’s an ineffable brilliance to a song, that, on some level, trying to explain only cheapens. It’s very reptilian brained to like music in the first place. Music is math, but it’s also magic. We’re all kind of snake charming each other. People quote musicians as fonts of sage wisdom, as if in our inherent superstitiousness we’re constantly tricking ourselves into believing that the vibrations wizard must know the universe’s secrets. It’s preposterous, but universally human.
Tonally, Weird matches the appeal of Weird Al’s music perfectly. Starring Rainn Wilson as a ClipArt version of parody song impresario Dr. Demento, who always wears his trademark tux and tophat, and who in this world is as culturally important as Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black), Alfred Yankovic (Radcliffe, who I used to hate reflexively but has finally won me over) spends his life trying to please his dour factory worker father (Toby Huss), encouraged by his mother (the always fantastic Julianne Nicholson), while hiding his true passion — to become “not the technically best, but the most famous accordion player in a very specific genre.”
Evan Rachel Wood plays Madonna, and in a movie where most of the celebrity impressions succeed by not trying very hard, Wood is spooky-accurate in a way that feels almost accidental.
Above all, Weird is constantly riding that line between too-stupid-to-be-funny and so-stupid-it’s-hilarious. It doesn’t even try to make you believe that it’s actually Daniel Radcliffe singing, which, rather than taking you out of the action, only focuses the attention more on the extraordinary adroitness of Weird Al’s rubber-band voice (always his secret weapon).
There’s a conceptual purity to Weird Al, in his refusal to ever be serious or earnest for even a single second. It’s hard to maintain that kind of thing, and yet he has, which has allowed him to become a myth, the class clown instinct personified. To delve beyond the facade would ruin the show. Weird is perfect because it never does. We get a few snapshots of the real Weird Al over the credits, just like we would with any straight biopic, only here they quickly descend into a series of silly photoshops. Just as it should be.