Polygon has a team on-site at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, covering the horror, comedy, drama and action films intended to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into award season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.
For nearly five decades, one man has defined what parody music looks like at its best. His subjects ranged from pop icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson to rock and hip-hop makers like Joan Jett and Coolio. He is known not so much by his name as by his chosen title: “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Some of the first words spoken in Weird: The Story of Al Yankovic are intended as satire: “Life is like a parody of your favorite songs”, a nod to Forrest Gump‘s iconic “box of chocolates” line. This is what every beat of Eric Appel’s feature film expansion of his Funny or Die short of the same name aims for. Why shouldn’t a biopic of a parody artist’s life be a parody itself? Corresponding, Foreign is relentlessly poking fun at practically every damn subject it touches. Co-written by Appel and Yankovic themselves, the film covers most of the musical biopics that preceded it as well as the history of the music itself. It’s a kind of attack of humor, with each scene being used as an excuse to make one or more jokes – usually a lot Lake. Like Appel’s original short faux trailer, the feature rewrites Yankovic’s life by creating a strange amalgamation of reality and fiction.
Foreign begins at the false end of Yankovic’s life, in a hospital death that is soon revealed as a fake and set up for a long history. Appel and Yankovic (played in the film by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) pass their time with the kinds of moments music biopics are known for killing: childhood trauma and broken parental relationships, meteoric rise to fame, and casualties. shocking collaborations, a tender mentorship and a heartbreaking descent into the world of drugs, sex and alcohol. One of the film’s greatest assets is the way it expertly connects these false screenplays to the real-life history of Weird Al, consistently forcing audiences to wonder what reality really means within fiction.
Accuracy has become the definitive yardstick for how contemporary biopics are judged, but Appel and Yankovic are questioning that concept. Some filmmakers choose to sacrifice history in favor of a sanitized, accessible product, usually at the request of the artists being documented, or those managing their image. (Bohemian Rhapsody is a good example.) Other filmmakers strive for something closer to an honest version of reality, such as Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, unlike Jalil Lespert’s “approved” Yves Saint Laurent. Or they embrace fantasy and metaphor to paint a larger portrait of an artist, such as Todd Haynes’ brilliant I’m not here.
But even in documentary portraiture, packing a life into a few hours delivers a clear, undeniable falsehood. And the audience only sees the artist through the eyes of the person who makes the story. This is where Yankovic’s parody skills come in handy. He skillfully rewrites history to the point of such a blatant falsehood that even viewers who barely have a clue about Yankovic’s true life story can still recognize how he modified it for his comedic advantage.
The film moves comfortably between the three anticipated acts: Weird Al’s rise as a parody artist despite an enclosed accordion-playing childhood; his downfall due to drugs, alcohol and Madonna’s influence; and his image restoration after the demise of his relationship and a return to his past that brings real peace of mind and canonization. Much of the film is downright unreal – the simplest bits of history are sometimes the most heartfelt, from the way Yankovic recorded his debut song “My Bologna” in a college bathroom because it had good acoustics to the way Dr. Demento’s comedy music show brought Yankovic to national attention. Along the way, the film even recontextualizes its live productions, such as its “Like a Surgeon” performance which is a parody of Madonna’s Truth or Dare performance of ‘Like a Virgin’.
Foreign‘s approach to music history turns factual events, both niche and obvious, into moments revolving around Yankovic, in overtly ridiculous ways. There’s Weird Al, who wears six platinum records around his neck and gets the full interview treatment from Oprah, as if his fame was ever really on that level. He is arrested in Miami for public fame in place of Jim Morrison, an event that is reframed when Yankovic takes out his accordion on stage, instead of his genitals. (In the film, accordions are framed as obscene throughout the film, including when teenage Yankovic is caught by the police playing one at a polka party.)
Pablo Escobar’s interest in Michael Jackson’s kidnapping turns into a subplot in which Escobar is instead obsessed with Yankovic and kidnaps his in-film girlfriend Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). There is even a Boogie nights-style celebrity backyard party that puts Elton John, Pee-wee Herman, Devo, Tiny Tim, Gallagher, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Wolfman Jack, John Deacon, and Divine (among many others) all in the same room at once, knocked out by the force of Weird Al’s parody abilities.
The real turning point from playfully fictional to downright ahistorical comes with the framing of the song “Eat It” as an original song rather than a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Within minutes of both the public and the record label this “new Al Yankovic original song,” Jackson’s “Beat It” hits the radio, shattering his dream of being taken seriously as an original artist, and leading the world believed his song was always a parody.
It’s a simple story beat, reminiscent of Yankovic .’s minor 30 Rock cameo where Jenna Maroney tries to write a “non-parody worthy” song to thwart the artist, leading to him creating a popular “serious” song instead. But the “Eat It” arc and its humor set a whole new dramatic arc for the film. Yankovic’s dedication to his persona and brand is exactly what makes his pop culture screen appearances so enjoyable, even if they’re as simple as playing a simple, “not weird” version of himself on Work in progress. The actors in his biopic are equally committed to the straightforward folly that defines this film.
Spotting all the cameos (often from famous actors or comedians playing various celebrities) adds to the film’s joy, but Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Yankovic grounds the story. Perhaps “grounded” is the wrong word for a Weird Al film meeting Queen Elizabeth II (whose death on the day of the film’s premiere at TIFF resulted in rowdy, slightly awkward laughter at the screening) and the idea that Weird Al could replace Roger Moore as James Bond. But everything the film does well comes back to Radcliffe’s performance.
Rather than live vocals or covers, the actor purposefully and clearly syncs with Weird Al’s real voice, just one of the many comedic beats the film throws at Radcliffe, who skilfully nails them. It’s not exactly a great performance, but it perfectly sums up the sincerity that has earned many an actor an Oscar nod or nomination in the face of completely nonsensical storytelling and writing. Even the supporting performances, such as Wood’s comically vile Madonna, Julianne Nicholson’s occasionally cutting but mostly loving role as Yankovic’s mother, Mary, and Toby Huss as Nick, Yankovic’s working-class father who just can’t stand that accordion music, all feel ideally calculated to fit the pre-existing Behind the music roles they play.
In a realm where To run is often cited as the definitive work of a music biopic parody — both satires of earlier films such as Walk across the line and Rayand a sign that there will be more to come with movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, rocket man, and even inspired by Baz Luhrmann Elvis — it would be pretty easy to fire Weird: The Story of Al Yankovic if nothing special. But Yankovic’s attention to detail and embrace of the absurd is exactly what makes the film so intoxicatingly charming, even in light of a script that sometimes feels like it’s just a loose framework for delivering a wave of jokes (not all of which will land for each viewer).
It’s an elaborate work of parody art that’s actually funny, and an expanded return to comedy from someone who’s a bit of a master at it. In a world where the man hasn’t released an album in eight years, it’s damn refreshing to have this cinematic ode to his particular kind of humor.
Weird: The Story of Al Yankovic will stream for free on the Roku channel beginning November 4.