Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected a biopic on “Weird Al” Yankovic to be anything other than a parody. Fans who were around in the ’80s and ’90s during his “Eat It” and “Amish Paradise” heyday especially know that spoofs are kind of his thing. But turning that shtick into a nearly two-hour movie that incessantly ridicules its very existence?
It takes about 30 minutes to grow weary of that, after which “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” becomes an unhinged freefall that aims for all laughs and exactly zero substance.
Directed and co-written by Eric Appel, sharing screenwriting credits with Yankovic himself, “Weird” begins as your typical — read: too typical — biopic.
We meet the parody musician (Daniel Radcliffe) as an accordion-playing child growing up in California and raised by a sheepish mother (Julianne Nicholson) and tyrannical father (Toby Huss), who oppose his interest in music and generally all his dreams right from the giddyup. Of course, it’s that discouragement that fuels his eventual success.
Fame and success — as well as a ludicrously fictional and toxic relationship with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), whose 1984 hit “Like a Virgin” he parodied with “Like a Surgeon” — contributes to his alcohol-infused maniacism and professional downfall. But not too catastrophically that the biopic can’t obligatorily culminate with his incredible comeback.
Yes, biopics often follow a template, and the drama is almost always amplified (or entirely made up, as it is in much of “Weird”). But doing a big-screen bit on biopics vaguely related to Yankovic’s life and career, no matter how low that fruit hangs, just isn’t interesting.
Certainly not in 2022, when there’s been such a complex conversation around comedy that it should easily open the door for a wider reflection on the enduring “Weird Al” phenomenon, even by the man himself.
What was it about his music or pop culture, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, when the film is mostly set, that allowed for a “White and Nerdy” musician to have free rein to lampoon pretty much any song or recording artist he wanted regardless of race, gender or message?
Maybe that would be better explored in a new documentary, one that expands on the principal biographical facts chronicled in the 1999 “Behind the Music” episode on him, or a more objective narrative feature that Yankovic doesn’t also write.
Though, it’s clear from “Weird” that the musician considers a lot of biopics to be clichés. Or, at least clichéd just enough for him to riff off them without actually addressing anything related to his artistry or motivations.
That’s certainly how Yankovic has navigated his work since the beginning. Daniel Goldmark, a professor and the head of popular music studies at Case Western University, considers it a key to the level of success Yankovic has had that surpassed any comedy musician before or since him.
“It’s like, Let’s take something that seems like a totally normal setup and then one screw is loose, figuratively speaking, and then what happens if we just keep pressing on that?” Goldmark suggested to HuffPost.
“So, if that’s the way you think about pop music and that’s the way you hear things — Oh, yeah, what happens if… ? — And then you just sort of go from there.”
That is a pretty common understanding of Yankovic’s accomplishments. That and the fact that while he doesn’t legally need permission to record new lyrics over someone else’s music, he always asks the recording artist for it anyway — underscoring his reputation for being a genuinely harmless and nice guy. And that everything he’s done has been purely innocuous.
Yankovic put it more succinctly in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” Yankovic told the newspaper. “I don’t want to be embroiled in any nastiness. That’s not how I live my life. I like everybody to be in on the joke and be happy for my success. I take pains not to burn bridges.”
It is true that there is a difference between Yankovic and acts like Eminem or Blink-182, who more bitterly parodied pop stars like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the late ’90s and early 2000s in songs and music videos, such as “The Real Slim Shady” and “All the Small Things.” There’s an obvious cynicism in their music that just isn’t there in Yankovic’s.
Still, considering the fact that Yankovic has made a whole career out of poking fun at everyone else rather incisively, “Weird” would have been a much smarter film had it made room for some introspection — even in his own signature spoof style.
Like, maybe acknowledging that his well intentions overlooked the fact that a few artists, notably Black, declined his use of their songs in order to maintain their social and political resonance.
And Coolio very publicly took issue with Yankovic parodying “Gangsta’s Paradise,” a truth that does make it into “Weird” in a caricature-like way, because his record label accepted Yankovic’s request for permission without consulting Coolio, unbeknownst to Yankovic. (The two later patched things up, long before the rapper’s death this year.)
Prince also declined four of Yankovic’s requests to use his songs.
It’s admirable that Yankovic respected the artists enough to not move forward with a song they’d declined. But it makes you wonder whether that encouraged him to gain an appreciation for social messaging in pop music, especially since parodying James Brown’s “Living in America” with “Living With a Hernia” years prior in the ’80s.
But no such reflection or even a cheeky acknowledgment happens in “Weird.” It’s clear that Yankovic has the talent to very wittingly mock popular music but can’t seem to be able — or want? — to turn that critical eye on himself in this way. This is how a more objective screenwriter might have benefited the film.
At the same time, though, there’s something to be said about the fact that Yankovic’s ’80s and ’90s hits remain massively beloved and you’d be hard-pressed to find much cultural critique around his work in this era. His album “Bad Hair Day,” which featured “Amish Paradise,” was his bestselling album at the time.
His music is understood as inoffensive and unquestionably easy listening. Fans certainly weren’t having these conversations then, and, as Yankovic expressed in that Washington Post interview, he went out of his way to keep things light at all times.
“There’s still some stuff he doesn’t deal with,” Goldmark said. “He doesn’t deal with sex, I think, drugs, alcohol…. I feel like that’s part of his image as the nerdy white guy. Nerdy white guys are square, which means they don’t get involved in that kind of stuff.”
The professor thought about that some more. “I think maybe it gives him a way to focus on the stuff that he enjoys,” he continued. “Like, I’m just going to stay away from those things. He doesn’t deal with politics too much either. Although that can come in much more easily, I think, depending on the way people interpret his songs.”
Exactly. Because another way to look at it is that Yankovic merely capitalized off a long history of nerdy white guys — often protagonists in films like “Sixteen Candles” and “Revenge of the Nerds” — recentered as heroic in narratives that take large detours from reality.
There’s been enough distance from this era to really reflect on it more deeply without fans haranguing Yankovic for doing something in an era of which he was merely a byproduct.
You could argue that Yankovic engineered his own life in an improbable way with a career that, in some sense, seems too unbelievable to be true. He’s a widely revered, hugely successful pop star who doesn’t necessarily fit inside the prototype of a pop star and who’s managed to take shots without ever being on the receiving end.
And maybe he co-penned “Weird” in that same fantastical vein, complete with an absurd narrative in which he victoriously contends with Pablo Escobar.
Still, it leaves a lot to be desired. It would have benefited from some self-examination, for instance. By his own admission to the Los Angeles Times last month, he is “reluctant” to even do his parody music today. For instance, he’s stopped performing “Eat It” because of the child molestation allegations against Jackson.
Yankovic is cognizant of how the recording artists he’s parodied view his spoofs as their “I made it” moment, so he will no longer give that tribute to those he now considers unsavory. But it’s reported in the piece that he hid his most immediate reaction to the question of doing parodies today with his hand over his face, implying he might be a bit more conflicted about this.
What he actually says is: “I don’t rail against PC culture and all that because I think when somebody is accused of being politically correct, that usually just means they’re being sensitive to other people’s feelings.”
Fair point. But this adds a bit more texture to his own narrative, begging for something sharper and more trenchant than “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”