Polygon has a crew on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, reporting on horror, comedy, drama, and action films destined to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published alongside the film’s premiere at TIFF.
For nearly five decades now, one man has defined what parody music sounds like at its best. His subjects range from pop icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson to rock and hip-hop creators like Joan Jett and Coolio. He is not so much known by his name as by the title he chose: “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Some of the first words spoken in Bizarre: the story of Al Yankovic are considered satirical: “Life is like a parody of your favorite songs”, a nod to Forrest Gumpthe iconic line “box of chocolates” from. That’s what every beat of Eric Appel’s feature expansion of his Funny or Die short of the same name is aiming for. Why wouldn’t a biopic about the life of a parody artist be a parody itself? Consequently, Weird is relentless in making fun of virtually every subject he touches. Co-written by Appel and Yankovic himself, the film both embraces and confuses many of the musical biopics that have come before it, as well as the history of music itself. It’s a sort of onslaught of humour, using each scene as an excuse to deliver one or more jokes – usually a plot After. Much like the original fake trailer short for Call, the feature film rewrites Yankovic’s life by creating a strange amalgamation of fact and fiction.
Weird begins at the fake end of Yankovic’s life, in a hospital death scene quickly revealed as a fake and a setup for a long story. Appel and Yankovic (played in the film by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) spend their time going through the kind of moments that musical biopics are notorious for killing: childhood trauma and fractured parental relationships, meteoric rises to fame and casually shocking collaborations, tender mentorship and heartbreaking descent into the world of drugs, sex and alcohol. One of the film’s greatest strengths is how it expertly connects these false storylines to Weird Al’s true story, constantly forcing audiences to wonder what reality really means in fiction.
Accuracy has become the definitive measure of how contemporary biopics are judged, but Appel and Yankovic challenge this concept. Some filmmakers choose to sacrifice story for a sanitized, accessible product, usually at the behest of documented artists or those managing their image. (Bohemian Rhapsody is a prime example.) Other filmmakers aim for something closer to an honest version of reality, such as Bertrand Bonello Saint Laurent, as opposed to Jalil Lespert’s “approved” Yves Saint Laurent. Or they embrace fantasy and metaphor to paint a bigger portrait of an artist, like the brilliant Todd Haynes I am not here.
But even in documentary portraits, packing a life into a few hours produces an obvious and undeniable fallacy. And the public sees the artist only through the eyes of the one who creates the story. This is where Yankovic’s parody skills come in handy. He expertly rewrites history to the point of such blatant falsity that even viewers who barely have a sense of the true story of Yankovic’s life can still recognize how he adapted it to his comedic advantage.
The film moves comfortably between its three expected acts: Weird Al’s rise as a parody artist despite a locked-in childhood playing the accordion; his downfall due to drugs, alcohol, and Madonna’s influence; and his image rehabilitation after the end of his relationship and a return to his past that brings true peace of mind and canonization. Much of the film is frankly unreal – the simplest bits of the story are sometimes the most heartfelt, from how Yankovic recorded his first song, “My Bologna”, in a college bathroom because she had a good acoustic to how Dr. Demento’s comedy-music show brought Yankovic national attention. Incidentally, the film even recontextualizes its live productions, such as its performance “Like a Surgeon” which parodies that of Madonna Truth or Dare performance of “Like a Virgin”.
WeirdThe music history approach transforms real events, both niche and obvious, into moments revolving around Yankovic, in overtly ridiculous ways. There’s Weird Al, wearing six platinum records around his neck, getting the full Oprah interview treatment, like his fame really is that much. He was arrested in Miami for being exposed to the public at Jim Morrison’s house, an event reframed as Yankovic took out his accordion onstage, rather than his genitals. (The film portrays accordions as obscene throughout, including when teenager Yankovic is caught by cops while playing one at a polka party.)
Pablo Escobar’s reported interest in the Michael Jackson kidnapping is turned into a subplot where Escobar is instead obsessed with Yankovic and kidnaps his girlfriend in the movie Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). There is even a boogie nights– a celebrity backyard style party that places 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 a time, floored by the power of Weird Al’s parody abilities.
Its real turning point from playful fiction to ahistorical comes from framing the song “Eat It” as an original song rather than a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Al Yankovic’s song, Jackson’s “Beat It” hits the radio, shattering his dreams of being taken seriously as an original artist, and making the world think his song was a parody from the start.
It’s a simple story beat, reminiscent of Yankovic’s minor 30 Rock cameo where Jenna Maroney tries to write an “impossible to parody” song to outsmart the artist, leading her to create a popular “serious” song instead. But the “Eat It” arc and its humor spawns a whole new dramatic arc for the film. Yankovic’s commitment to his personality and his brand is precisely what makes his on-screen appearances in pop culture so enjoyable, even when they’re as simple as playing a simple, “not weird” version of him- even on Work in progress. The actors in his biopic are equally committed to the deadpan silliness that defines this film.
Spotting all the cameos (often from famous actors or comedians playing different celebrities) adds to the joy of the film, but Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Yankovic grounds the story. Maybe “grounded” is the wrong word for a film starring Weird Al meeting Queen Elizabeth II (whose death on the day of the film’s premiere at TIFF prompted thunderous, slightly uncomfortable laughter during the screening) and the idea that Weird Al could replace Roger Moore as James Bond. But everything the film does well comes down to Radcliffe’s performance.
Instead of live vocals or covers, the actor deliberately and obviously syncs to Weird Al’s actual voice, just one of many comedic beats the film throws at Radcliffe, who expertly nails them. It’s not exactly a great individual performance, but it perfectly captures the sincerity that earned many actors nods or Oscar nominations in the face of utterly absurd storytelling and writing. Even supporting performances, like Wood’s comically wicked Madonna, the occasional but mostly impassioned role of Julianne Nicholson as Yankovic’s mother Mary, and Toby Huss as Nick, Yankovic’s unsupportive working-class father just not that accordion music, all feel ideally calculated. to adapt to the existing behind the music the roles they play.
In a field where walk hard is often cited as the definitive work of musical biographical parody – both an expert satire of earlier films like walk the line and Rayand a sign of more to come with movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and even the Baz Luhrmann inspired Elvis — it would be easy enough to dismiss Bizarre: the story of Al Yankovic like nothing particularly special. But Yankovic’s attention to detail and acceptance of the absurd is precisely what makes the film so intoxicatingly charming, even in the face of a script that sometimes feels like it’s just a loose frame to deliver a wave of gags (not all of which will land for every viewer).
It’s an extended work of parody art that’s actually funny, and an extended return to comedy from someone who’s kind 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 specific brand of humor.
Bizarre: the story of Al Yankovic will stream for free on the Roku Channel starting November 4.