The Bonkers Story Behind the Outrageous ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Biopic

The Bonkers Story Behind the Outrageous ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Biopic

As the story of Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic goes, on one fateful day, while he was a child in the ’60s, a traveling salesman stopped at his house and offered to sell his family an accordion—the instrument that would eventually catapult the comedian-musician’s legendary career.

After his father beat up the salesman, Yankovic’s mother bought the accordion for Al out of guilt. There was one condition: Al would have to practice in secret. When friends in high school later convince a sheltered, teenaged Al to go to a house party, he’s stunned to learn that his classmates are raving to the latest music sensation: polka. After some cajoling, he plays the accordion—the forbidden instrument, his darkest secret—for everyone, and the party goes wild.

Fed up with his father’s disapproval of his passion, Al leaves home to pursue a career in music. One afternoon while making bologna sandwiches for lunch, one of his roommates innocuously calls the lunchmeat “my bologna.” It’s a eureka moment for Al, who starts riffing on the phrase and, on the spot, comes up with the lyrics for the “My Bologna” parody of The Knacks’ 1979 hit, “My Sharona.”

The rest is history: “Weird Al” Yankovic became the best-selling artist of all-time. People magazine named him Sexiest Man Alive. Madonna pursued him for a steamy affair, and eventually a long-term relationship. He became the first artist to sell out Madison Square Garden for more than 20 consecutive dates. Hollywood pursued him to play James Bond and Indiana Jones. Michael Jackson callously ripped off his song, “Eat It,” in order to create “Beat It.” Pablo Escobar was obsessed with him, and eventually kidnapped him. Then there’s that time he hit a tragic rock bottom.

It’s all right there in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, the new biopic of Yankovic that is now streaming on The Roku Channel.

There is, perhaps, one caveat to make: As director and co-writer Eric Appel tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, Weird was made with “no research” into Yankovic’s actual life and career.

If Weird seems like an unbelievable story, that’s because it’s meant to be. The movie casts Daniel Radcliffe as Weird Al, whose parody songs and music videos (like “I Love Rocky Road,” “Like a Surgeon,” and “Amish Paradise,” for example) became a pop-culture phenomenon throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Casting the handsome Harry Potter star as the comedy performer best known for his long, curly hair and nerdy Hawaiian shirts both delighted Weird Al fans…and confused them. Once you watch Weird, however, it all makes sense.

“We never intended for this to be a real movie,” Appel laughs. We’re speaking at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where Weird was receiving a showcase screening. Like many biopics of famous musicians, the movie has been a staple of the fall festival circuit, including a splashy premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival—where many a film’s Oscar hopes are launched. Unlike those other biopics, however, almost everything in Weird is made up.

Director Eric Appel

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

The project began almost 10 years ago, when Appel was working with the comedy site Funny or Die. One of the most viral sketches there was a parody trailer for a “Weird Al” Yankovic biopic, with Aaron Paul as Al, Olivia Wilde as Madonna, and pure fiction as the trailer’s “facts.” Yankovic, who gave the project his blessing, would show the fake trailer at concerts, and fans clamored for it to be turned into a real thing. (That’s when they weren’t confused and asked where they could watch the full movie.)

Years later, Yankovic was looking for his next big project, and the biopic genre was booming, with films Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Respect. After jumping through a few Hollywood hoops, he and Appel were writing a feature-length script and, soon after, watching Daniel Racliffe as Weird Al in a shootout with Pablo Escobar on a film set.

“We thought, let’s treat this as if it is a real biopic that exists in some bizarro alternate universe,, where Weird Al is as popular as the Beatles were and parody songwriting is the most innovative thing,” Appel says. “It’s like Elvis swinging his hips or the invention of rock and roll.”

Now that Weird is available to stream, we chatted with Appel about the outrageous film’s humble origin story; the singular, enduring appeal of Weird Al; and every wild and gloriously silly decision made in the making of this movie.

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“Weird Al” Yankovic

Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

It’s been nearly a decade since that Funny or Die sketch. Now here we are with a full-length film.

My goal then was, “If I make a fake movie trailer and it looks like a real movie, maybe someone will let me direct a real movie.” It’s funny that 10 years later…

Why make a fake movie trailer?

We had the original idea right after the Notorious B.I.G. biopic Straight Outta Compton had come out. Those events had happened maybe a decade earlier, and I read some article about all the factual inaccuracies that were in the movie. And the idea was like, “Oh, that’d be funny if I made a fake biopic trailer about someone who’s still alive, and then I just made up all the facts.” Like, you could clearly fact check this.

How’d you land on Weird Al as the subject?

He was one of the first people I thought of for two reasons. One is the meta nature of it being a fake parody. It’s a parody of biopic trailers about the guy who does parodies. And then I also remember his Behind the Music on VH1. He talks about how “if anyone made a biopic about me, it would be a very boring story.” There’s no controversy in his life. He didn’t drink. He didn’t do drugs. He didn’t have any torrid love affairs. He doesn’t even curse. So I thought it would be really funny to make it a really scandalous Weird Al rock biopic. I thought, “This feels like something that Weird Al would do.”

It’s interesting to watch the scenes in Weird that exaggerate Weird Al’s success from the vantage point of 2022, because the truth is he was massively successful. I’m not sure younger people might understand that. How would you characterize how big he was?

I mean, he was big enough that, at one point, Kurt Cobain asked when Weird Al was going to parody one of Nirvana’s songs. MTV was such a cultural shaper back then. And Weird Al was this guy who, every couple of years, would emerge with a parody of the biggest hit of the time, and it was an event. Like when Michael Jackson would premiere a music video. It was like, “Oh my God, Weird Al’s dropping a video!” It was like Beyonce secretly dropping an unannounced album.

I love that he would play this fake trailer at shows, and fans enjoyed it so much that they essentially willed this movie into existence.

Al said that people would come up to him after shows and say one of two things. Either, “Can you please make this a real movie?” Or, “I looked for this movie everywhere. How can I find it?”

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Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey and Daniel Radcliffe as “Weird Al” Yankovic

Courtesy of Roku

When you graduate a short comedy sketch into a full movie, how do you do that without it just seeming like one, very long comedy sketch?

If you’re going to follow the biopic formula and make it about him, he has to have the troubled beginnings, where his parents don’t understand him. He’s got to become super rich and famous, and he has to have a meltdown and hit rock bottom. Madonna’s in our movie, but she plays a very different character than she did in that trailer. In the trailer, it’s more of a June Carter Cash type. She’s crying about him being an alcoholic.

In the movie, it’s the complete opposite. Madonna’s his enabler.

We didn’t want to parody any specific biopic. A big part of this was to satirize the biopic genre as a whole. Not even just rock biopics. We drew inspiration from Boogie Nights and Forrest Gump just as much as we drew from The Doors and Bohemian Rhapsody. It was trying to take that biopic story arc and hit the beats, but in a surprising way. The second half of our movie goes off the rails.

I remember when they announced that Daniel Radcliffe was cast as Al, and the internet thought it was so—pardon the pun—weird. But he really is an actor who, post Harry Potter, has made some really interesting, out-there choices. Where did the idea for his casting come from?

The choices that he has made in his career post Harry Potter are just so interesting and oftentimes funny. He’s someone that really gets comedy, but he’s also a great dramatic actor who carried an entire franchise for a decade. The tone of our movie requires that everyone plays it so straight. As ridiculous as things are, we needed someone like Daniel who would create their own version of Weird Al who only exists in this movie. I agree, if this was a straight biopic about actual Al Yankovic, he would be the most bizarre choice in the world. But I wanted someone who wasn’t going to push the comedy, because I think this movie plays funniest when there are really grounded performances with a kind of a ridiculous script and story.

When some of the first images of Daniel as Al came out and he was shirtless, people were intrigued and uncomfortable by the fact that, at least in those images, they were sexually attracted to Weird Al Yankovic.

I loved seeing all of those tweets. It took us by surprise when his shirt came off on set. I didn’t know Radcliffe was so shredded. It’s funny. It was a happy accident that Dan happened to have that physique. It played perfectly into what we were trying to do with the movie, which was portray this bizarro version of Al. Like, what if he was a sex symbol?

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Evan Rachel Wood, Eric Appel, Daniel Radcliffe, and “Weird Al” Yankovic

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

There are probably going to be people who press play on the movie still under the assumption that it is a straightforward, serious biopic. Do you have an inclination of what point they might realize and be like, “Wait a second…”

Al and I talked about this a lot. We sort of laughed at the fact that everyone’s going to have a different moment. Some people are going to get it right away. Some people are going to get it when Al’s dad breaks a chair over the accordion salesperson’s back. Some people, maybe it’s going to take them all the way to Pablo Escobar.

Was there ever a point when you—or maybe even Al—had this pang of, “Maybe Al Yankovic actually deserves a serious biopic, not a parody of one?”

It’s funny. He’s someone who’s definitely deserving of a biopic. He’s such an icon. He’s a Halloween costume every year. But it’s like he always said: His real story doesn’t have the drama. There’s no villain. There’s no downfall. It doesn’t have the arc to make a compelling story. Al never really had that. He would go away for a little bit, and then he would always reemerge on top. I feel like he’s doing it again with this movie. I think to do a biopic like this is the only way you can do a Weird Al biopic. Making it a parody biopic is the way to honor the legend.

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