Dir: Eric Appel. Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood, Jack Black, Rainn Wilson, Toby Huss, Julianne Nicholson, Quinta Brunson. 108 minutes.
I’ve often heard it said that 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story ruined the music biopic for good. Jake Kasdan’s parodic riff on the genre’s conventions – the troubled childhood, the meteoric rise to fame, the parade of famous faces, the inevitable seduction to the dark side of drink and drugs – felt devastatingly precise. And it can be hard now to watch a scene of any bright young thing nervously ingesting their first narcotic without thinking of Tim Meadows’ Sam and his repeated refrain: “Get out of here, Dewey. You don’t want no part of this s***!”
But I’d disagree with the notion that Walk Hard, as brilliant as it is, marks some be-all and end-all of stories about musicians. The music biopics released since haven’t paid all that much mind to the film’s humiliations. Some of them, including this year’s Elvis, can tick off every cliché and still soar. Even the parodies are alive and well, thanks to mockumentaries like Documentary Now!, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and, now, the artfully absurd Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Weird was co-written by director Eric Appel and Yankovic himself, the parody musician who blazed through the Eighties and Nineties with riffs on popular songs: “Eat It”; “Like a Surgeon”; “Amish Paradise”. It expands on a three-minute fake movie trailer published by Funny or Die in 2010 and featuring only a sprinkling of truth to it, while adding Daniel Radcliffe in the title role, looking absolutely nothing like the real Yankovic. The punchline goes like this: what if Yankovic, one of the most wholesome and silly musicians to have ever lived, had the same rollercoaster story of fame and excess to tell as Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury or Ray Charles? The rest almost writes itself. His mother (Julianne Nicholson) finds Hawaiian shirts, Yankovic’s trademark, hidden away in his childhood bedroom. His father (Toby Huss) denounces the idea of putting new lyrics to existing songs as “confusing and evil”. He sneaks away from home to attend an illicit polka party that’s broken up by cops.
But Al eventually finds a mentor in the form of Dr Demento (Rainn Wilson), a real-life comedy disk jockey key to Yankovic’s early success, and becomes the most famous musician in the world with barely a squeeze of his trusty accordion. Weird is one of those rare but precious comedies that works because of how faithfully it commits to the bit. Corruptive feminine temptation comes in the form of Evan Rachel Wood’s perfectly outsized Madonna, who pushes the tired sexism of the “Yoko Ono-type” to such an extreme that it exposes its inherent ludicrousness – the film ends on the title card “Madonna Ciccone is still at large”. At one point, Yankovic becomes the world’s most deadly assassin and goes head-to-head with Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro). A conveyor belt of recognisable comedians speed by, there only to deliver a couple of killer lines or their best impressions of Andy Warhol or Salvador Dali.
Radcliffe, who remains movie-star ripped for the film’s duration, is a genius casting choice. He has pitch-perfect comic timing without necessarily coming across as someone trying to tell a joke. There’s a real sincerity to him and he has the eager grin of a Broadway performer about to take their bow. Yankovic is first inspired to write “My Bologna” when he spies a packet of luncheon meat while The Knack’s “My Sharona” plays on the radio. The back-and-forth shots – meat, face, meat, face – are stretched out to the point of hilarity. But Radcliffe’s straight-laced delivery of that moment is basically inseparable from what Rami Malek was doing in Bohemian Rhapsody. Walk Hard didn’t exhaust our ability to make fun of that kind of self-important filmmaking. There’s plenty of room for Weird, too.
‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’ streams on The Roku Channel from 4 November