Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (TIFF 2022): Film Review
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a parody film that satirizes its subject matter, and the biopic formula in general, in hilariously off-the-rails fashion.
The Toronto International Film Festival is underway, and I’m extremely happy to be taking part of it! Especially if a majority of the films in its very exciting lineup are of the same quality as the first one I’ll be covering. That film is Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which tells the story of the famous parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic … well, a version of it, but we’ll get to that. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic, who grows up in the 60s and 70s admiring comedic radio personality Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson). He develops a passion for playing the accordion and dreams of writing parody versions of existing songs, despite the wishes of his father (Toby Huss). When he grows up, he ends up being Demento’s mentee and finds himself quickly rising to fame as one of the all-time biggest musicians, with many massive hits, famous fans, and a new, thrilling lifestyle that jeopardizes his relationships with his friends and his own emotional well-being.
I’ve enjoyed Weird Al’s music for a very long time. His comedy isn’t the sharpest or most ingenious ever, but they were perfect for my tastes as a kid when I discovered him, and they still get a decent laugh out of me today. I even played “Canadian Idiot” on my way to my screening for the film itself, given the country I’m currently in. As for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, I was open to a biopic on Yankovic’s life, but its setup on paper seemed to fit a little too well into the biopic mold we’ve seen done to death by now. My hopes were that director Eric Appel, who also co-wrote the film with Yankovic himself, would take advantage of the comedic nature of Yankovic’s career to put a fresh, maybe even satirical spin on the story and the biopic formula as a whole.
Much to my extreme delight, that’s exactly what happened here, to a degree that even I couldn’t have anticipated. Let me make something very clear right now: this is not a true biopic. It’s not an authentic look at Weird Al Yankovic, and it’s not supposed to be seen as in any way “legitimate”. This is an intentional parody of a biopic. The same way Weird Al takes the familiar framework and composition of a song but replaces its meaning with something purposefully silly and outlandish, Weird does the exact same thing to the typical biopic formula. And it makes that clear right away. Early on, Al is busted and taken home by the police because he was caught attending a polka party, and it’s played with hyperbolic seriousness as if he’d been doing something actually illegal or dangerous. Whereas most musician’s-rise-to-fame stories have the musician’s parents simply disapprove of or try to shut down their dreams, Al’s father reacts to Al’s love for a harmless accordion with almost psychopathic ire.
This is the kind of humor you’re in for with Weird. It takes full advantage of how silly Al Yankovic’s career is in both concept and execution, and it constantly juxtaposes that with the same level of importance that a “serious” musician’s career would have. The “brilliance” of his artistry, his impact on the world as his fame rises, and the intensity of everyone’s emotions surrounding his comedy, are all played up to clearly exaggerated degrees. This makes even the most tired of clichés hilarious, like when Yankovic begins improvising a song about bologna and his friends all react like he’s just created a masterpiece. The humor even works on multiple levels because, when you think about it, the real-life Yankovic must have had to present his goofy parodies to some higher-ups or music executives to get his career going, meaning he must have had to take himself seriously to some degree.
Had Weird just relied on this form of humor, it probably would have started losing momentum over time. But as the film progresses, it goes even further in not only its satire, but its willful alteration of history. I don’t just mean exaggerating the facts or making a few things up. I mean completely throwing reality out the window, in ways that no one could misinterpret as fact. Weird takes the common problem of biopics’ historical inaccuracies and leans 100% into it, far beyond what I think anyone will be expecting. Just when you think the film can’t possibly top itself in how it portrays Yankovic like the most important person to ever live, it just keeps going further and further, even taking forays into other film genres!
What makes this especially funny is that it highlights how, when you really think about it, the very idea of doing a biopic sits on the cusp of egotism on the part of the subject matter. If a celebrity believes their life is worth making a movie about, one where they’ll usually be held up and praised as the icon they are, what might that say about how they view themselves? Especially when the biopic distorts facts, something that films like The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody have taken flak for. This is all brought to life with a consistently hilarious and clever script that takes every advantage of every comedic possibility, big or small, that comes with this setup.
In fact, while watching Weird, I often found myself hoping it would go for some joke I came up with in my head. And almost every single time, it ended up doing exactly what I had in mind. So many great jabs at Yankovic’s career, common clichés that come with these kinds of stories, and the excessive idolization of creative talent are tossed at you at breakneck speed. It’s a laugh-a-minute approach that could have gone very wrong had the humor not been as consistently strong as it is here. Yankovic’s songwriting often contains both focused satire and wacky randomness, and that’s exactly how Weird is written as a film.
At the center that humor is Radcliffe, whose casting raised a few eyebrows for some but seemed like it could be an intentionally funny mismatch for others. His performance turns out to be the best of both worlds: he’s humorously mismatched as Weird Al specifically, but he still brings to life a person you legitimately believe would do and write the zany, off-beat things he does. He can be small and awkward one moment but then big and outlandish the next, which is where his comedic chops truly get to shine.
The cherry on top of all this is the plethora of nods and homages to Al Yankovic’s career that add an extra layer of enjoyment for those who know his material. But if you, say, know nothing about Weird Al going in, you’ll by no means have a shortage of great laughs. The film still works as a more general satire that applies even without prior knowledge of the specific subject matter. Understanding all the references and Easter eggs thrown into Weird is simply a great bonus that lets you in on a few more of the jokes. That’s how any story based on a real person or event should work, even if the term “based on” is stretched to its absolute limits in this case.
I was excited for the potential of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, but I was nervous about whether it would fulfill that potential. But outside of an ending that goes on a little too long and certain jokes that get a little repetitive, this is a fantastic comedy that goes above and beyond in satirizing the biopic formula and letting it go completely off the rails. It’s already funny when it simply over-exaggerates that formula, but it evolves to increasingly embrace its own insanity as a transparently unreal parody. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Weird Al, or if you haven’t seen a lot of these rise-to-fame stories and don’t catch all the ways they’re made fun of, the constant lunacy and great writing should still be enough to win you over. Not only did Weird give me everything I wanted from it, but it exceeded those expectations and is currently my favorite comedy of the entire year.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story premiered at TIFF on September 9, 2022, and will be available to watch on the Roku Channel on November 4.
Read our list of films to watch at TIFF 2022 and our article on 5 underrated musical biopics that deserve more attention.