To call Weird: The Al Yankovic Story a biopic is, well, not really true. Because most of the film is not really true. That means it doesn’t really matter if you’re a die-hard Yankovic fan or only vaguely aware of him, you’re equally likely to enjoy it. This is a film full of lies, in which Daniel Radcliffe, wearing a terrible perm and arguably worse moustache, plays Yankovic, a boy who makes the fateful decision to buy an accordion from a door-to-door salesman, grows up to be the biggest star in the world performing silly parody songs, descends into self-destructive alcoholism and nearly has his life destroyed by a scheming and evil Madonna. Only one of those things is factual, and it’s not the Madonna bit.
“It is in fact true that a door-to-door accordion salesman came to our door and that’s why I play the accordion,” says Yankovic. The rest, though, nonsense. Nonsense is ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s stock-in-trade. In the 1980s, Yankovic became surprisingly famous for his parodies of pop hits, including ‘Eat It’ (a parody of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’), ‘Another One Rides The Bus’ (Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’) and ‘Like a Surgeon’ (‘Like A Virgin’ by Madonna). All that silliness has garnered him 12million record sales, five Grammys and made him an enormously successful live act.
He’s made a lot of money out of being absurd. So it makes sense that there’s a movie about him, even though Yankovic doesn’t have much of a juicy story. A happily strange child in a loving family, he started playing the accordion and writing parody songs to amuse himself. One got picked up and played on the radio and he became gradually more popular and stayed there, about B-level famous. He doesn’t drink, do drugs or even swear. “He’s led a really controversy-free life,” says Weird’s director, Eric Appel. “His real life wouldn’t make the most interesting story.” So of course they had to make it up. The ultimate spoofer needed a spoof movie. But that doesn’t answer an important question. Why the hell is Daniel Radcliffe playing him?
Daniel Radcliffe wondered exactly the same thing. He and Yankovic are nothing alike. Talking to them both on Zoom today, there is very little similarity, even allowing for the fact Radcliffe is 33 and Yankovic 62. Radcliffe is outgoing and energetic. Yankovic is quite shy and prefers to let Radcliffe do most of the talking. They’re physical opposites, Radcliffe small, square-jawed and surprisingly buff; Yankovic tall, long-faced and wiry. If you were picking someone to imitate him you might choose Paul Dano or Jesse Eisenberg. Radcliffe wouldn’t even be on the list. So he wondered why he got to the top of it.
“This is the second weirdest thing I’ve ever done”
“When I was approached, I thought, ‘That’s really cool, but I feel like there are people closer to Al, physically’,” says Radcliffe. “I didn’t get at all what the premise of the film was. Then I started reading the script and realised, oh, naturalism and accuracy is not part of their game.”
Yankovic had decided Radcliffe might be the man to play him when he saw him on The Graham Norton Show, singing a song to Colin Farrell and Rihanna. “He performed ‘The Elements Song’ by Tom Lehrer,” says Yankovic. It’s a tongue-twisting ditty that includes every element on the Periodic Table. Rihanna seemed into it. “You have to be kind of a big nerd to memorise that,” Yankovic continues. “I thought: ‘Here’s a kindred spirit. This guy gets it.’”
In fact, while Radcliffe is a self-professed nerd in many ways, there was another reason for him to take the role. If he hadn’t, part of his family would probably not have spoken to him again. Radcliffe was aware of Yankovic as a teenager – “‘White And Nerdy’ and ‘Amish Paradise’” were probably the first I listened to” – but it wasn’t until he met his current girlfriend that he became really steeped in his music, whether he wanted to be or not.
“My girlfriend Erin, she’s been to three concerts and her dad and brother have been to even more,” says Radcliffe. “That was when my induction into the fold really began… Every road trip or Christmas, there will be an Al soundtrack. There’s a lot of Al in our lives.” Such was the family affection for Yankovic that Radcliffe made Erin promise not to tell her family when he was in discussions for the role. “I was like, absolutely do not tell your family, but when we did, the reaction was great.” The family have yet to see it, but Radcliffe is relieved that at least he loves the movie and is fairly confident they’ll enjoy it. “If it hadn’t been good I could never listen to Al again but I also might well be single and would certainly never be allowed to see the in-laws again.”
“If this film hadn’t been good my girlfriend would’ve dumped me”
As with most movies, Weird first came to the public’s attention via a trailer. Except the one that led to the making of this film was never meant to be advertising anything. In 2010, burgeoning comedy writer Eric Appel was spitballing ideas for Funny Or Die, the well-known comedy video website where he then worked. “I believe the Notorious B.I.G. biopic [2009’s Notorious] had just come out and I was reading some articles about the factual inaccuracies in it,” says Appel. “I was thinking about how biopics are generally about people who have died, so I thought it would be funny to make one about someone who’s alive and that was completely made up.”
He decided ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic would be the perfect subject, to make the trailer a parody of a famous parodist. Yankovic was immediately onboard, so Appel made a mock-serious trailer featuring Aaron Paul as Yankovic and Olivia Wilde as, curiously, Madonna, his lover (they were never lovers, nor even friends). “The nugget of truth that inspired the inclusion of Madonna was that she had requested Al do a parody of ‘Like A Virgin’. That’s true,” says Appel. Yankovic obediently wrote 1985’s ‘Like A Surgeon’.
The very funny brief video was a hit and that was supposed to be it. But then ‘Weird Al’ fans wouldn’t let it go. Yankovic would play it at his shows, to fill the time while he was changing costumes. “It always got a huge reaction,” Yankovic says. “People were coming up to me after the show asking when it was coming out.” Although he and Appel discussed making a full film in 2010, and both Paul and Wilde were keen, they never seriously entertained it, until years later when Yankovic realised how many over-the-top biopics were being made – Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman – and thought it might be the moment to actually make his own. “I woke up one random Tuesday in February 2019,” says Appel, “and I had this weird email from Al saying, ‘I’ve been thinking…’”
The movie came together quickly and had to be shot quickly, because it was made at the height of the pandemic. Evan Rachel Wood was brought in to play Madonna, who was expanded into a villain who wants Yankovic to spoof her to boost her record sales. Appel and Yankovic wrote a script that required Radcliffe to do all the things you’d expect from a rock star biopic, pushed to the most absurd degree. That ranges from having a drunken breakdown on stage to hatching naked from a giant egg during a drug trip. “I think that scene, coming out of a giant egg while naked, covered in goo, playing the electric guitar, is the second weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” says Radcliffe. “I think it’s still second to Paul Dano riding me like a jet ski in Swiss Army Man, but it’s those two then clear daylight before anything else.”
“I’ll take top two,” laughs Yankovic.
“I want as many people as possible to appreciate what I do”
–’Weird Al’ Yankovic
Appel says that was far from the weirdest scene for him. “Oh the weirdest was when we had to do anything genuinely dramatic, earnest and heartfelt,” says Appel. “Coming out of an egg? Sure! But when Dan has tears in his eyes… Anything where the emotional beat really worked, that was weird… Al and I would be watching on the monitors like, ‘I can’t believe this works on an emotional level’.” He says it’s credit to Radcliffe that he could do the most absurd things and also land believably human moments. It gave him license to push as far as he wanted. There was almost no limit to how silly this movie could go. “I had some ideas that took it to a level of sci-fi or supernatural, which I decided was a little too much,” says Appel. “But those were the limits: space or other dimensions.”
Despite their lack of obvious similarities – asked to describe unusual things they have in common, Yankovic can only come up with “we both love Wordle” – Yankovic and Radcliffe share one key trait: they’re both oddballs. But they’ve had different experiences of being publicly odd. Yankovic was confidently weird well before it became part of his name. He grew up with peculiar interests and never considered trying to hide them. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. “Growing up playing the accordion certainly didn’t make me one of the popular kids. I was a nerd from the start.”
For Radcliffe, things were different. He was 12 when he first appeared as Harry Potter, becoming one of the most famous and – as much as any 12-year-old can be – coolest kids on the planet. But he was, deep down, just as offbeat as Yankovic. He just had to wait a few years to express it. “I did Equus during Potter,” Radcliffe says, “and I think that was me starting to show an interest in [doing unusual things].” His West End run in that play saw him take on a challenging role as a mentally ill young man with an obsession with horses, which he eventually brutally attacks. It required extensive on-stage nudity, when he was only 17. As an announcement that he wasn’t going to follow Potter with superhero movies and romcoms, it was pretty emphatic. “It was a statement of intent that I’m not going to do just Potter, I’m going to do stuff that is challenging and different,” he says. “People see you do Equus and they think, ‘Oh you want to take a chance. Maybe you’ll do Kill Your Darlings’. Then somebody sees that and thinks I might do Horns, then Swiss Army Man, then Guns Akimbo. And that would lead to this.”
Being weird comes with challenges. Working outside the mainstream means not everybody is going to like what you do. Yankovic has received many unimpressed reviews throughout his career (full disclosure: some from NME), as has Radcliffe. “I want as many people as possible to appreciate what I do,” says Yankovic, “but I’ve never calculatedly catered to a wide audience. I was always just being true to my own sense of humour and what I thought was funny, even if I thought a lot of people wouldn’t get it.”
“I wouldn’t rule out a sequel”
Radcliffe’s experience was a little different. After Potter he needed some positive reviews or he’d be the Potter kid who made dumb choices and failed. “When [2012 ghost thriller] The Woman In Black came out and did well, that was really important for me,” he says. “It proved I could be in something [other than Potter].” Now, his reputation established, he’s not always worried about what people think. “I think I care about it in proportion to how much I love the film. This and Swiss Army Man are some of my favourite things I’ve done, so I’m the most nervous about what people will think of them.”
Fortunately for both, Weird has been very well received so far, with riotously excited audiences when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and largely positive reviews. In fact, it’s been so well received that it’s possible we may see more of it. Because Weird isn’t actually a true biopic it doesn’t have to end here. “This might be the first biopic with a sequel,” says Yankovic. Daniel Radcliffe laughs. “I’m such a fan of that joke alone that I definitely wouldn’t rule anything out.”
Appel thinks it’s more than possible. “I think it’s potentially something that could happen,” he says. “I have some ideas kicking around in the back of my head… There’s so much untapped ‘Weird Al’. We didn’t really touch the ‘90s and 2000s. There are big hits that aren’t in this movie.” And maybe next time they’ll have to take space and the supernatural off the no-go list. Sequels always have to go bigger than the original and Radcliffe needs to push Swiss Army Man off his oddest top spot. Rip up the rule book. Parameters are for normal people, not the weird.
‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’ is released on The Roku Channel on November 4