Hardship. Talent. Big break. Fame. Drugs/hotel suite insanity. Tragedy. Final reel involving either redemption and rebirth or funeral at 27. The music biopic, fundamentally unpliable of narrative, tends to work best when sticking to the fairly rigid dramatic arc of the standard megastar’s career. It’s rare to find a riveting pop movie involving an artist working hard, keeping their nose clean and doing a lot of work for charity. The box office successes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman are unlikely to be repeated by, say, Annie Lennox: Very Nice Lady Apparently.
The minimum requirement, you might imagine, is a tempestuous rags-to-riches tale of a singer fighting their way to fame against the odds, overcoming personal or industry barriers to stardom by sheer brilliance alone, totalling a limo or two and then almost (or actually) losing it all to the bottle/their criminal accountant/Operation Yewtree. A major hit for the big concert climax is a must. A star anybody is actually interested in is a bonus too.
Which makes the announcement of a biopic on the life of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, set to stream on Roku, somewhat baffling. Y’know, ‘Weird Al’, the accordion-playing, teetotal pop parodist, vaguely famous for singing ‘Eat It’ to the tune of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ in 1984 and, for 1992’s ‘Smells Like Nirvana’, dressing up as Kurt Cobain to sing about not being able to understand the words of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Older readers might consider him a one-man Barron Knights. Gen Zers should imagine a deeply unsexy Lonely Island, or LadBaby with a marginally wider thematic reach. Basically, he’s the American Chris Moyles.
“We were excited to shine a light on the incredibly true, unexaggerated story of ‘Weird Al’,” said Roku’s head of original scripted programming, Colin Davis, about WEIRD: The Al Yankovic Story, but Al’s biography doesn’t exactly scream Sid & Nancy. A smart, shut-in Californian outsider learns accordion. They amuse anybody who finds the idea of covering pop songs but, crucially, with different words unspeakably hilarious (‘My Bologna’, 1979; ‘Another One Rides The Bus’, 1980). MTV catches on; songs suggesting Michael Jackson likes food capture the imagination of an audience yet to aspire to the high-minded sophistication of Beavis & Butthead. Slight blip at the end of the ’80s, turned around with grunge and rap pastiches and more songs about Michael Jackson’s dietary habits (if it ain’t broke…). Grammys, number one albums, 12 million sales, blah blah. At one point he shaves off his moustache. The Axl Rose Story this is not.
There are certainly tears to this clown – in 2003, both of Yankovic’s parents died on the same night from carbon monoxide poisoning – but the heart-tugging drama appears to end there. Even his 1985 semi-autobiographical film The Compleat Al had to veer wildly into mockumentary territory to jazz up his backstory: he wasn’t really born in a lift. The press gubbins for WEIRD promises the film will detail the “torrid celebrity love affairs and famously depraved lifestyle” of this long-married vegetarian Christian who doesn’t even swear. Anyone else smell a spoof-opic?
The casting seems to point the same way. Rather than take the usual route of casting the actor who most resembles the star in question (in which case Ross Noble would be a shoo-in), in WEIRD Yankovic will be played by Daniel Radcliffe. “I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the role future generations will remember him for,” quipped Yankovic but increasingly, since finishing the Harry Potter movies, future generations are more likely to remember him for some of the most ill-fitting roles to grace the screen since someone told Mariah Carey she should have a crack at acting. The tech geek criminal mastermind of Now You See Me 2. Cinema’s most fresh-faced Igor to James McAvoy’s Victor Frankenstein. The talking, flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man.
“The financial success thing, that’s done, so just do things that make you happy,” Radcliffe has said about his post-Potter approach to role selection, which suggests the script to WEIRD must be the first genuinely funny thing Yankovic has ever been involved with. This can’t just be a rehash of 40 years of cornball pop spoofs peppered with scenes of ‘why won’t the world take me seriously?’ head-clutching, can it?
WEIRD must surely be Yankovic’s most meta project of all: no longer merely parodying the music of the world’s biggest stars but their entire life stories. In the wake of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and the daddy of all rock parody films, This Is Spinal Tap, Yankovic wouldn’t exactly be revolutionising cinema comedy, but a spoof Yankovic life story has got to be better than the more straightforward alternative. Because a ‘serious’ Weird Al biopic would probably be about as watchable as Leigh Francis: My Life.