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A parody of rock biopics that celebrates its subject by completely trashing the facts of his life and career, Eric Appel’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is relentlessly silly, wholesome at heart and so stuffed with cameos it might give you the idea that a couple of generations of cool people love this guy.
Co-written by the artist (who also costars as a fickle record exec), it’s a kindred spirit to his songs without being so gag-hungry it forgets how to tell a story. Just like his music, it’s not for everybody, and to be sure, there will be few audiences as hungrily receptive as the one at its Midnight Madness Toronto premiere. But it brought the house down here, and should be a boon to the underdog Roku Channel when it arrives there in November.
Weird : The Al Yankovic Story
Finally making good on the faux movie trailer he released a dozen years ago, TV director Appel’s feature is almost exactly what the short promised, lifting bits from it practically verbatim. Aaron Paul played the singer back then, helping to sell the (totally invented) rock-star self-destructiveness the trailer hinted at; this time we get Daniel Radcliffe, whose sweetness makes Fake Al’s turn toward nasty behavior funnier, occasionally even poignant.
As a boy, Al was like every other kid. He kept shameful things hidden under his mattress to be discovered by his worried mother (Julianne Nicholson); he fell under the spell of a traveling accordion salesman, earning the wrath of his father. (Toby Huss makes an ideal humorless patriarch, disdaining the Devil’s squeezebox and, when his boy invents new words for a revered hymn, declaring, “what you’re doing is confusing and evil.”) It’s true that all great art is transgressive, and in return for alienating his old man, Al would have it all, as only a polka parodist can. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s get back to where it started, in college.
There, young Alfred’s odd interests were allowed to bear fruit. His three normal, cool-guy roommates encouraged him to find his own way of expressing himself, and accidentally helped him get started. One day, he’s making a sandwich for one of them as a new song by The Knack comes on the radio. As the refrain “My Sharona” drills into his head, our hero stares at a package of Oscar Meyer like an ape gazing into interstellar obsidian. “My Bologna” is born.
Overnight success is a myth. For Al, it was a same-day phenomenon. He goes out to mail a homemade cassette of his song to a DJ, and by the time he gets home it’s the most-requested song in town. Now he just needs to develop a live show, and attract the attention of a pun-loving mentor, the great Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson).
(For the uninitiated: Dr. Demento was a real person, a DJ of novelty songs whose syndicated show was beloved by children who didn’t understand sports and thought that nearly cursing in a song was maybe the funniest thing ever. Evidently, some of us grew up to think that nearly cursing in a movie is pretty funny also. And he really did introduce the world to “Weird” Al.)
The insanely hyperbolic success Al then finds might be the movie’s self-effacing way of acknowledging how unlikely it was that a performer could make a lifelong career working in, as the movie puts it, an extremely specific genre of music. Or maybe it’s just a chance to traipse through the tropes that 2016’s Popstar and similar comedies have mocked, this time with homespun charm. (“Traipse Through the Tropes” being a lesser-known Tiny Tim record from the ’70s.)
It turns out that his parodies are bigger hits than the songs they mock, and whenever he releases one, sales of the original song go through the roof as well. Enter an opportunistic young singer named Madonna. Evan Rachel Wood is a gum-smacking vixen here, sashaying into Al’s life as Mads and making him believe they’re soulmates. She starts the teetotaler drinking, nurtures his inner prima donna and eventually gets him mixed up with Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro).
That last subplot will find the hirsute accordionist transforming first into John Wick, then into Rambo. But instead of morphing into an anything-goes genre sendup a la Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, Appel and Yankovic quickly get back to music, offering third-act familial surprises and the obligatory redemption narrative. Though it’s a tiny bit flabby in its second half, the movie knows how to race offstage when it’s ready, offering a genuine twist or two as it goes. It may not set the world on fire, as “Eat It” did, but Weird is a funny, welcome reminder of a time before the internet and Marvel made being a nerd so ordinary.
Distributor: The Roku Channel
Production companies: The Roku Channel, Tango Entertainment, Funny or Die
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood, Rainn Wilson, Toby Huss, Arturo Castro, Julianne Nicholson
Director: Eric Appel
Screenwriters: Eric Appel, Al Yankovic
Producers: Al Yankovic, Michael Farah, Joe Farrell, Whitney Hodack, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Max Silva
Director of photography: Ross Riege
Production designer: Dan Butts
Editor: Jamie Kennedy
Composer: Leo Birenberg, Zach Robinson
Casting director: Wendy O'Brien
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