Daniel Radcliffe

"It's a great instrument," Daniel Radcliffe says of the accordion. "It's just very, very hard."

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Weird Al

The mustache is real. The curls are not. "The hair and makeup department just nailed it," Radcliffe says.

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Weird Al

Who needs a professional band when you've got roomates to play "My Bologna"?

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Weird Al

Record company hotshots the Scotti Brothers (Will Forte and the real Al Yankovic) crush young Al's dreams.

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Weird Al

In the fictionalized movie, Yankovic has a torrid relationship with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood).

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Weird Al

The ultimatel Hollywood party: Yankovic poolside with his mentor Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) and weird peers Pee-wee Herman (Jorma Taccone) and Tiny Tim (Demetri Martin.)

Aaron Epstein/Roku
Fill 1
Fill 1
August 03, 2023

Strangest Things in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Like the parody songs that made its titular protagonist famous, "Weird Al" Yankovic's biopic is an irreverent mashup of pop-culture tropes, fantasy and fun — with an international star in the title role.

Frank DeCaro

When the subject is a beloved music icon and the actor set to play him is an internationally known superstar, selling a biopic to a Hollywood studio should be easy.

But getting Weird: The Al Yankovic Story to the screen was anything but.

"Even with the script we had and with Daniel Radcliffe attached, it was still a hard sell," admits "Weird Al" Yankovic, the comedian behind such pop-music spoofs as "I Love Rocky Road," "Eat It" and "I Lost on Jeopardy." "Everybody liked it. No one wanted to pay for it. Literally, the only person that made a bid was Roku."

Weird, huh?

The project began as a fake trailer for a Weird Al biopic, created in 2010 by executive producer-director Eric Appel (Die Hart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) for FunnyOrDie.com. Yankovic approved of the project and was an enthusiastic collaborator, even screening the trailer at his concerts, where it picked up traction with fans hoping to see a real movie come to fruition.

Cowritten by the accordion-playing hitmaker with Appel, the film — reverse-engineered from the trailer — turned out to be not only Roku's biggest hit ever, but a trophy-winner, too. Weird took home a Critics Choice Award for Best TV Movie, plus numerous other honors from critics and film festival judges.

As for viewers, David Eilenberg, head of content at Roku Media, said upon the film's release, "The response from our streamers to Weird: The Al Yankovic Story has been nothing short of phenomenal." The numbers were big, but not quite as big as some said. Yankovic took to Twitter to boast that eight billion people — that is, every living person — had watched it.

Such exaggeration is not only the funnyman's signature, it's also the movie's hallmark.

In the highly fictionalized film, Yankovic (Radcliffe) dates Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), uses kung fu to defeat Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro) and — spoiler alert! — is pronounced dead right at the beginning by a doctor (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

"All Hollywood biopics play fast and loose with the facts," Yankovic explains. "They make things up, they change the chronology. We thought, 'Well, as long as they're doing that, why don't we do my biopic and just throw all the facts out the window?'"

The powers that be at Roku were fine with that. "Creatively, they really let us do whatever we wanted," Appel says. The laissez-faire approach worked.

As Variety movie critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, "It's a movie that does to the biopic form what Weird Al did to songs like 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll' and 'Beat It' — imitates it, razzes it, throws mud at it, turns it inside out. And all with supreme affection."

"It's such a brilliant parody of the music-biopic genre," Radcliffe says. "They really explore every trope. Reading the script, it was so clear how much fun this would be to make. I've gotten to do musical numbers before, and I've gotten to do crazy stunts and fight scenes before, but I've never gotten to do them in the same film. Knowing that every day was going to present a really cool, weird challenge was very exciting."

For the writers, choosing which Weird Al songs to include was sometimes tough.

"We knew we were going to have me die in 1985," Yankovic says. "So we had to focus on the very early songs." Weird includes such '80s classics as "My Bologna," "Another One Rides the Bus" and "Like a Surgeon." But Yankovic also wanted to include his '90s smash "Amish Paradise," so he came up with a highly implausible and highly amusing reason to do so — his father grew up Amish. "We figured by that point in the movie, we've already stretched the believability to the breaking point. It was like, if we just throw in a song from 1996, who's going to know?" Everyone, but that's part of the fun of Weird.

While it employs the biopic conventions of such earnest offerings as Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody and Elvis — distant fathers, conniving businessmen — Weird works as comedy because, despite all the silliness, it is played as completely straight as those other films. "Our mission statement from the get-go was that this has to play like a very serious, Oscar-bait Hollywood biopic," Yankovic says. "It's got to have no winking, no nudging. Eric was always saying, 'That's too wild, that's too kooky. You've got to keep it grounded.'"

Although the movie is still wild and kooky — Weird is very Al Yankovic — it is also a rallying cry for anyone who feels marginalized to fly their personal freak flag.

"The movie is absolutely a love letter to being true to your authentic self," says Nina West, the drag alter ego of Andrew Levitt, who impersonates Divine in Weird. "It says what you bring to the world matters and what makes you different should be celebrated."

The film also boasts one of the most honest portrayals of parents faced with unusual (and unusually talented) offspring ever put on film. Young Al's mother, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), tells her son, "Your dad and I had a long talk, and we agreed it would be best for all of us if you just stopped being who you are and doing the things you love."

How many odd kids of Yankovic's generation didn't experience such squelching?

"As funny as the movie is and as fun as it was to shoot, we were all very serious about doing it right," says Toby Huss, who, as patriarch Nick Yankovic, smashes Al's accordion.

No one was more serious than Radcliffe. Although he grew up in the U.K., his longtime girlfriend, American actress Erin Darke, introduced him to Yankovic's oeuvre long before he was cast. "She's been to multiple Weird Al concerts and her dad used to listen to him on The Dr. Demento Show [on the radio]. They're very, very thorough fans," he says. "I had more than the average person's knowledge of Al's back catalog. So when I read the script, I got the joke."

Yankovic had a feeling that that would happen.

"I had seen him on The Graham Norton Show at the tail end of the Harry Potter movies," Yankovic remembers. "He chose to perform 'The Elements' by Tom Lehrer, which is basically the periodic table set to the tune of '[I Am the Very Model of a] Modern Major-General' by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought that is the nerdiest thing you could possibly do on television. Rihanna and Colin Farrell were looking at him like he was crazy, but I thought, 'Oh, this guy will be my friend.'"

"He was the perfect choice," Appel says. "In our first conversation, he was asking what kind of accordion he should buy because he was planning to learn how to play one for the movie. Dan's a leading man — he carried a franchise for a decade! — but his post-Harry Potter choices have been so interesting."

Since hanging up his invisibility cloak and leaving Hogwarts, Radcliffe has essayed such far-flung roles as beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, a demonic monster and murder suspect in Horns and a flatulent living corpse in Swiss Army Man.

"I've got a reputation for quite enjoying the weird," Radcliffe says. "But sometimes weird stuff can be a fun way to talk about very human themes. Somebody shouted, 'Stay weird!' at me on the street not too long ago. I got a real kick out of that."

For his part, Yankovic got a kick out of playing an oily record company executive. In Weird, he and Will Forte play the Scotti Brothers, who initially crush Al's dreams. Forte's character, Ben Scotti, not only refuses to sign the young artist, he also berates him mercilessly. "You're nothing but a hack, a stupid, useless parasite, and you're so ugly," he says.

In real life, the actual Scotti Brothers promoted Yankovic, but the singer did face plenty of rejection in his early years. "Nobody saw the potential in what I was doing at first," he says. "I was going around town with demo tapes, and everybody thought, 'Oh, this is funny, this is brilliant, this is so good. But no, we're not interested.'"

Today, of course, he's sold 12 million records — and they're interested. Yankovic is a beloved presence in Hollywood, with a reputation as one of the nicest guys in show business and an international fanbase. He doesn't drink, swear or do drugs, follows a vegetarian diet and has been married to his wife for twenty-two years. They have one daughter.

The supporting cast of Weird, gleaned from Yankovic's address book, reads like a Who's Who of hip, funny performers. Rainn Wilson impersonates Dr. Demento, the radio personality who was an early champion of Yankovic's work. Josh Groban plays a waiter. Patton Oswalt, a heckler. Seth Green, a radio DJ and Michael McKean essays a role credited as "Sleazy M.C."

"Most people would want to work with Al in some capacity if they could," Radcliffe says.

In the film's most talked-about scene — a Boogie Nights-style pool party packed with celebrities — everyone from Conan O'Brien (as Andy Warhol) to Jorma Taccone (as Pee-wee Herman) to Jack Black (as Wolfman Jack) shows up. Aaron Paul, who'd played Weird Al in 2010 in the three-minute Funny or Die trailer, was going to make a cameo but got sick. Other party guests include Paul F. Tompkins as Gallagher, Emo Philips as Salvador Dali, Demetri Martin as Tiny Tim and Akiva Schaffer as Alice Cooper.

"People were there because they wanted to be there," West says. "Everyone loves Al so much." The drag artist remembers getting a phone call while playing Edna Turnblad in the road company of Hairspray. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is a Weird Al project? This is a Daniel Radcliffe project? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.' I flew in from Wisconsin and was on set for one day."

Speed was important. With a shooting schedule of only eighteen days — and Radcliffe available for only fourteen of those — Yankovic says, "The hardest thing was getting all the shots we needed. I was so thankful that Eric was as good as he was, and Daniel was as good as he was. The entire cast and crew brought their A-game. We didn't have time to mess around." An elaborate fight scene in the film, he notes, had to be shot in four hours. "It was just crazy."

The breakneck pace and slender $8 million budget meant that the pool-party scene had to be shot in half a day, even if the weather refused to cooperate. "It was the coldest day of the year," Appel recalls. "The clouds weren't working in our favor. But the performances were so funny and everybody was having such a blast — when they weren't huddled around heat lamps."

Although Weird followed appropriate protocols, Yankovic was worried he or someone else might test positive for Covid. "If that had happened, the movie would have been over," he says. "There was no contingency plan for reshoots. It would have been, 'Okay, we're done.'"

Thank heaven, all remained well.

In some ways, it seems that Yankovic still cannot believe the film got made. "Seeing Daniel Radcliffe reenacting moments from my life, which may or may not have happened, was sort of an out-of-body experience. I couldn't believe this was finally happening," he says.

The big question on everyone's mind: how does Madonna feel about her fictional role as Weird Al's main squeeze in the film? "We have not heard," Yankovic says. "The lawyers told us that we didn't need to get permission from any of the public figures, so we just did what we did and hoped that Madonna and everybody else have a good sense of humor about it."

Does Yankovic think she'll like it? "I love and respect Madonna, and I like to think she can take a joke," he says. "What I want to know is, how I'm going to figure into her biopic."

Now that would be really weird.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is executive-produced by director Eric Appel with Henry Muñoz III, Neil Shah and Zachary Halley. Al Yankovic produces with Mike Farah, Joe Farrell, Whitney Hodack, Tim Headington, Lia Buman and Max Silva. The film is produced by Funny Or Die and Tango.

The interviews for this story were completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2023, under the title "Strangest Things."

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