Weird is a lovably cartoonish take on the musical biopic, but there’s simply too much dead air between its gags to keep things as funny as they ought to be.
If there’s any tried-and-true formula for Hollywood success, it’s found in the musical biopic. From the propagandistic venture of Yankee Doodle Dandy’s George M. Cohan to the political statement that is The Doors, or from cheeky historical reinventions like Inside Llewyn Davis to straight hagiography like Ray, the genre asks for everything in the world of show business. It’s designed to sell months’ worth of tickets while also always qualifying for Oscars, and audiences can expect the fanciful, escapist scenes of the ethereal world of showbiz while also being ever so “real” when showing a life behind the curtain. Most of the time, the lead will be based off a real musician, offering an additional history lesson to those who can’t stand those pesky original characters, but even the more abstract commentary on the genre, A Star Is Born, has been enormously successful in all five of its iterations (including the original What Price Hollywood). Ever since the star system died, no other genre has been able to maintain this level of clout, so of course it will be mocked, broken down, parodied, and destroyed. In Hollywood, every emperor has no clothes; parody movies are simply the jesters who point it out.
Of those harlequins, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is the title likely to have done the most damage. Though mostly poking fun at Oscar winners du jour, Walk the Line and Ray, any subsequent musical biopic featuring the expected beats of drug use and tragedy would be met with snickering comparisons to Walk Hard. Though, like Scream to the horror genre, this would not result in diminished ticket sales to the generic genre pieces, but would rather establish Walk Hard as the parody musical biopic, given that works like Spinal Tap were already out of the cultural discussion — respected but passé. This is all to say that now, when Weird: The Al Yankovic Story tackles the same territory, it will have an obvious comparison piece. Thankfully, it does not lean too far into the shadow of Walk Hard, but it also fails to shine on its own.
Unlike Walk Hard, Weird takes an actual musician’s life as its point of parody, meaning that a familiarity with “Weird Al” Yankovic’s life is just as important for a joke to land as familiarity with the genre itself. Alfred Matthew Yankovic, his surname coming from his father’s Yugoslavian background, enjoyed a supportive family, early fame through the Dr. Demento radio program, consistent (and, given his genre of polka-based parody songs, extreme) success throughout his career, and no scandals to date. He attends the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement’s Church of Christ which explains his aversion to profanity, alcohol, and drugs, though he is never pushy about his beliefs. Though he may poke fun in his music, he is never outwardly mean, and manages to work out any public squabbles with other artists. And, despite all of this, he never even manages to fit a Ned Flanders mold of annoying goody-goody. He remains well-liked, well-respected, and, at least in his personal life, pretty boring.
Thus, Weird’s mission is to undermine that image by hammering out one joke over and over: Perfect Al, the goody-goody, does something a little naughty. The first half of the film manages to do this pretty well, thanks to cribbing the sort of dialogue usually found in Danny McBride vehicles. The film establishes a young Al obsessed with Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) and MAD magazine, but hampered by a cartoonishly unsupportive father (Toby Huss) and a loving but docile mother (Julianne Nicholson). Al’s father meets every positive moment with a good thrashing (especially to the door-to-door accordion salesman, one of whom really did give the real-life Al his first accordion), and the mother summarizes their attitude to his Demento’d outlook with the McBridian line “We agreed it’d be for the best if you just stopped being who you are and doing what you loved.” An adult, modestly successful Al (Daniel Radcliffe) then ventures into the world of music stardom by way of a cameo-filled party (notables: Jack Black as Wolfman Jack, Nina West as Divine, and a comically gangly Conan O’Brien as Andy Warhol) and Demento’s subsequent sponsorship. From there, the tone of the movie changes as quick bits and gags take a back seat to entire sequences devoid of jokes, save for their window-dressing. Al becomes the best-selling artist of all time, goes on long alcohol benders thanks to femme fatale Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), and battles it out with Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro) in the jungles of Colombia. Some of these sequences can be funny, even when they go on for a bit too long, such as the movie’s insistence that Al’s “Eat It” is the original, while MJ’s “Beat It” is the subsequent parody. But most of them demand that we find the fifth minute of a straightforward action sequence hilarious, and that a ripped Weird Al boasting an automatic rifle in a cocaine den will be funny outside of a writers’ room. Part of what made Walk Hard consistently funny was its screwball nature of jokes leading into other jokes and daring, like madcap classic Hellzapoppin’, to flaunt or belittle what’s needed to move the plot forward. Weird, though equally lovably cartoonish, wants and eats its proverbial cake with plenty of moments of screenwriting-manual-approved dead air just to get to the next long gag.
Radcliffe, donning a party store afro, and Wood, never changing out of the Desperately Seeking Susan attire, play charming, if cheap, versions of their beloved ’80s celebs. Other long-term gags do seem to work, such as none of the characters ever acknowledging that the parody songs are funny: when they hear a new Al piece, they are simply immediately blown away by his songwriting prowess. But the film fails to even be as truly weird a take on the musical biopic as, say, Yesterday, or even previous Al biopic The Compleat Al — movies that manage to hit all the genre beats while still feeling alien. Weird Al deserves more than a painfully extended Funny or Die bit, but that’s already been awarded to him in his own vehicle of UHF decades ago. This movie simply serves as a nice reminder that Weird Al exists and that he’s a good person. It’s everything an agent could ask for.
You can stream Eric Appel’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story on the Roku Channel beginning on November 4.