Every music biopic features a moment of intense creative epiphany. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story — a film about the iconic parodist Weird Al Yankovic, streaming in India now on Amazon Prime — includes a scene where Yankovic is being written off for his lack of originality. Known for songs that spoof popular music, he’s told he can’t create something truly his own. Challenged and desperate, the musician resorts to psychedelic drugs and a song emerges in his head after an LSD trip, much like the epic poem ‘Kubla Khan’ appeared to Samuel Coleridge in an opium haze. Yankovic’s new song is called Eat It, and it’s a sensational song, unlike any before it.
Yet even as Yankovic enjoys his success, some kid called Michael Jackson does a parody of the song, calling it Beat It. Thanks to Yankovic’s track record of making novelty music, people assume his song is actually just a parody of Jackson’s song. The musician is devastated, and the injustice is too dramatic to be real. Which is because it is entirely untrue.
It is only appropriate for a biopic of Weird Al Yankovic to spoof biopics at large, and the film — directed by Eric Appel, and starring an infectiously enthusiastic Daniel Radcliffe as Yankovic — is a riot. Factual inaccuracy is itself a homage to the biopic genre, which plays fast and loose with facts. Bohemian Rhapsody, an unbearable biopic from 2018, claimed that Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS right before the film’s climactic Live Aid concert. In reality this happened years later, but hey. Eat it.
Yankovic, now 63, makes parodies that are works of art. Not only does the musician copy songs exactly — down to vocal stylings and guitar solos — with his funny lyrics, but also performs songs in the key of musicians, taking on the entire ethos of an artist. Michael Jackson was impressed by not just the lyrics of Eat It, but by its music production. My favourite Yankovic songs include Ode To A Superhero, which tells the Spider-Man story set to Billy Joel’s Piano Man; The Saga Begins that distills Star Wars: Episode 1 to the tune of Don McLean’s American Pie; and Bob, a fiendishly clever song where every single line is a palindrome.
Radcliffe, an actor who has been taking wild and crazy swings ever since he left behind wizardry, may appear an odd choice to play Yankovic. With a mop of ringlets, a heavy moustache and an exaggeratedly ripped body, he looks more like Jesse ’The Body’ Ventura, but the actor performs with such abandon — and his smile is so magnificently guileless — that its hard not to get caught up. Wearing florid shirts that stay perpetually unbuttoned, Radcliffe embraces the lunacy of the film.
The genius of Weird lies in it not being entirely made up. There was, for instance, once such a phenomenon as ‘the Yankovic bump,’ where a Yankovic parody of a song — many of which were Billboard hits — would boost the sales of the original song, by expanding its reach to a newer audience. Yankovic’s Smells Like Nirvana sold many, many more records for Nirvana. In the film, we see the fabulous Evan Rachel Wood playing Madonna and trying to seduce Yankovic in order to do a parody of her song Like A Virgin. She needs that bump.
Wood plays the legendary superstar circa 1985, that Desperately Seeking Susan phase, all fishnet-gloves and hairbands, and her performance captures a great deal of that ineffable Madonna-ness. In one scene, Weird Al asks if Like A Virgin is autobiographical. “Yes,” bats back Wood, at once entirely sincere as well as sensational enough for sincerity not to matter. “I technically am a virgin, except for the fact that I’ve had a lot of sex.”
This is a defiantly unpredictable film, filled with odd and inconceivable cameos. The tall redheaded talk show host Conan O’Brien plays the diminutive white-haired icon, Andy Warhol. Quinta Brunson plays Oprah Winfrey, Emo Philips plays Salvador Dali and, perhaps most unforgettably, David Dastmalchian plays Queen bassist John Deacon, a member of one of the world’s biggest rock groups but one who, when not standing next to legendary vocalist Mercury and star guitarist Brian May, has to keep introducing himself to people.
The thing about music parodies—like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), and of course the greatest rock music film of them all, the 1984 classic This Is Spinal Tap—is that they can only work when made with a massive degree of affection for the music and the musicians. Weird is proud of its unique protagonist, and in a sweepingly irreverent fashion, spreads that love across many genres and styles. A Hawaiian shirt has never felt quite so mythical.
Back when Yankovic christened himself “Weird”, it was an insult, a word to signify societal outcasts who could never fit in. Over the years, the word has become a badge of honour, a sign of uniqueness and going against the grain. Fitting in is simply an option. One of the few musicians who didn’t allow Yankovic to parody a song was Paul McCartney, only because Yankovic’s planned version of his Live And Let Die was called ‘Chicken Pot-Pie’, because it contradicted Sir McCartney’s own latter-day vegetarian beliefs. Imagine. Even a Beatle got older. Al stayed Weird.
One of Daniel Radcliffe’s most entertaining recent comedies is The Lost City (Netflix). Sandra Bullock stars as a romance novelist trapped on a remote island by a mad billionaire played by Radcliffe, who has a blast being bad. Channing Tatum plays a male model trying to rescue Bullock.