If you are a child of the 1980s like I am, you probably have a greater appreciation for “Weird” Al Yankovic than most other generations. You could hardly be aware of a popular song from that decade for too long before Yankovic released a hilarious parody of it. There are some who say parodies are mean. I am inclined to agree with this assessment, though as a kid I laughed at his music as much as the next person. Parodies are meant to make light of something by copying it in a comedic fashion. “Weird” Al made a career out of it. Call it an indication of where society has gone in the past thirty years, but Yankovic has not done much of significance since he released “Amish Paradise” in 1996. Occasionally, you will hear some reference to him somewhere in the vast jungle that is popular culture these days, but not like it was in the 1980s. In the intervening years, such is our sensitivity that we do not like to see anyone get even a good-natured ribbing. Some of this is good, and some of it is absurd. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story says screw it, I am going to make a parody of my own life. It is pretty funny, too.
The first time we meet our title character (Daniel Radcliffe) in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, he is bloodied and being wheeled into a hospital operating room on a gurney. Before this scene is too far along, a narrator (Diedrich Bader) explains that we need to go back to the beginning of Yankovic’s life in order to understand how he got to this point. Thus, we find Yankovic in boyhood (Richard Aaron Anderson) trying to hide from his parents his love of the Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) radio show. His mother, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), is a little more accepting of his odd behavior than is his father, Nick (Toby Huss). When later at dinner Al admits that he wants to be a musician, Nick reacts scornfully. What gives Al’s ambition a boost is when a door-to-door accordion salesman (Thomas Lennon), of all careers, comes to the Yankovic household. Though Nick beats the man to within an inch of his life, Mary secretly buys the shiny new instrument that entranced young Al. So far, this all seems plausible, but it is when Al enters his teenage years (David Bloom) that it becomes apparent that the whole movie is a parody. That is because the party that he sneaks out to suggests that every high schooler in the 1970s was into accordion and polka music. It is at the soiree that Al’s talents are first shone to the public as he is handed an accordion and he plays it with gusto. Unfortunately, the police come to break up the scene and escort a frightened Al home. Nick finds out about the instrument Al has been hiding and destroys it in his fury. Thankfully, for Al’s sake, he is able to move out not long thereafter, and remarkably finds a set of three roommates who are all supportive of his dreams of becoming the greatest musician to ever make up lyrics to other people’s songs while playing the accordion. Yes, it is that specific. They even help him put together his first demo tape based on his parody of “My Sharona” by The Knack, calling it “My Bologna.” Though it gets plays on the radio, the record company feel he is still too niche, and that he needs to continue playing and getting his name in public. The place he picks to do it is a punk club, but he wins them over with his version of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll,” called “I Love Rocky Road.” It is there that he meets his idol Dr. Demento, who happens to be in the crowd. Dr. Demento agrees to mentor Al, taking him around to meet other odd acts with which you would be familiar, like Pee-wee Herman (Jorma Taccone). It is the beginning of the molding of a superstar, and all that kind of lifestyle entails. Soon thereafter, Al decides he has had enough of parodies, and is going to make his own original music. For instance, the film claims that he had written Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” calling it “Eat It,” and that the King of Pop is copying him. At the same time, he begins to date Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who is wanting Al to do a parody of one of her songs so that her career can get a boost. Their relationships turns out to be toxic for Al as she feeds his spiraling out-of-control ego with alcohol and bad advice. She eventually gets her way, too, when Al gets into an accident while driving drunk, which also brings us up to the beginning of the film. Al survives and is inspired to make “Like a Surgeon” over Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Still, Al is beginning to realize that he has pushed away anyone for whom he cares, leaving only Madonna, who is having increasingly delusional ideas of a joint career. This is when Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro) intervenes, who is angry with Al for refusing to play for the drug lord. Pablo’s men kidnap Madonna, and now Al must use his apparent commando skills in order to rescue her. In the wake of killing Pablo and all his men, Madonna realizes that the death of the cartel leader has left a power vacuum that she and Al could fill. He refuses, and decides to return to his parents and the factory job Nick always wanted him to have, even though he is still unclear on what they make. Doing so brings Al face-to-face with Nick, who has been proud of his son for a while. Nick later reveals that he had once been a part of an Amish community, but escaped because he wanted to play music. Given the song title mentioned in the introduction, I think you can guess what else Al got out of this exchange other than making amends with his dad. This gives him the courage to resume his music career. His comeback is ended when Madonna has some of her men gun Al down at an awards ceremony. The end.
It took me a minute to realize what is going on in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story because, as a trained historian, I kept wanting to fit the events into the neat little box of true events. With a description like this, you might believe that I did not enjoy the film. It actually got funnier as it went along. There are a few moments that kind of make you wonder about the seriousness of the film, such as when the accordion salesman is savagely beaten. It is also never fun to watch a person lose control of their lives. Yes, this is the Catholic film critic talking, though I hope nobody thinks such scenes are fun. Still, every time you think it is getting too serious, it pulls you right back into the silliness. One of my favorite parts is while in the midst of freaking out over the kid from the Jackson 5 parodying his song, Al asks if “Beat It” is meant to refer to what you do with eggs. The head of his record label, Tony Scotti (Al Yankovic), says no, that it supposedly refers to fighting, or avoiding fighting, or something. He finally settles with not being sure. These lines, and the fact that they are delivered by the real “Weird” Al are hilarious.
For a movie like Weird: The Al Yankovic Story that has such hilarity in it, there is an inordinate number of references to faith. Some of it is pretty bad, like Al’s first experience with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) being compared to a religious experience. Believe what you like, but communicating with God is far more real than any chemically induced trip. Yet, the one I would like to touch on to a greater degree, and gives the film the most gravitas, is the relationship Al has with Nick. At many points, Al admits that everything he has done with his career has been to impress Nick. Later we learn that Nick’s strictness with Al has been motivated by the way the Amish had treated Nick. Echoing what had been told to him, Al’s accordion was a play thing of the devil according to Nick. While watching this unfold, I could not help but think of how God sees all of us. There is nothing that we need to do to impress God or earn His love. It is a Grace freely given to all of us, though our society does as much as it can to distract us from it. Here, too, we see a parallel in the movie as Al allows himself (one could say that his delusions do the work) to be enchanted away from those sources of unconditional love in his life. With this in mind, it is nice to see the reconciliation between father and son. Sure, the silliness meter gets out of control, but it can be sweet as well.
I had intended to watch Weird: The Al Yankovic Story in the theater, but it was apparently only playing on the Roku Channel. Luckily, I had it, so nothing lost on my end aside from an evening out of the house. I guess the theaters are just preparing for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever? I hope it lives up to the hype. This one had little hype, but I am guessing it will go down as the better film. Some of the material in it is adult, so make sure the kids are in bed before you put it on.