LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
You should expect to learn nothing about the life of Weird Al Yankovic from the new film "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story." That's because in keeping with Weird Al's history of parody and comedy and send-ups, the film, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is itself a send-up of biopics. From unsupportive parents who hate the accordion to a scandalous affair with Madonna, the movie is quite intentionally an avalanche of fictions mixed with maybe the occasional dash of the truth. It's very, very silly. It's very, very inessential. And in its own way, it's very Weird Al. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Joining us today is "Switched On Pop" producer Reanna Cruz. Hi, Reanna.
REANNA CRUZ: Hey, Linda. How you doing?
HOLMES: I am doing great. And I am delighted that you are here. And also with us is Jordan Morris. He's a podcaster and the co-writer of the graphic novel "Bubble." Welcome back, Jordan.
JORDAN MORRIS: Hi - great to be here. Thanks, Linda.
HOLMES: So "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" began its life over a decade ago as a Funny or Die short in the then-fake trailer for a Weird Al biopic. Aaron Paul played the man himself. Patton Oswalt played his mentor Dr. Demento. And Olivia Wilde played Madonna. But while the idea and some of the jokes are carried over into the now-real film, the cast is reset. Now Daniel Radcliffe plays Weird Al. Rainn Wilson plays Dr. Demento. And Evan Rachel Wood plays Madonna as a dangerous, grasping careerist who just wants a parody song to blast her to fame.
Director Eric Appel wrote the film with Weird Al himself, and Al appears in a small role as a record executive. So to call this an authorized biography is probably an understatement. The film has already won the People's Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's streaming now on the Roku Channel. It is safe to say this is that outlet's highest-profile gamble yet on original streaming content.
Reanna, I feel like I should start by asking you to describe to our listeners the item that you held up for me and Jordan to see before we began taping...
HOLMES: ...'Cause I think it's going to help ground us both in this world and this conversation.
CRUZ: It's my pride and joy. Last year, for my birthday, I found online a quilt of every Weird Al album cover stitched together. And I sent it to my group chat. I was like, anybody want to buy this for me for my birthday? And my friends love me, so they did.
MORRIS: That's a good group chat. That's a good group chat.
CRUZ: Yeah, right?
CRUZ: Great friends, great friends. And every night, you know, Weird Al is in my bed in...
MORRIS: Enveloping you.
HOLMES: So you come to this with, we can say safely, a great affection for Weird Al. As such a person, how did you feel about the film?
CRUZ: You know, I have mixed feelings about it. But I think much like the spirit of Weird Al himself, you're not going into "Weird" expecting a great movie. I kind of went in with the mindset of, is this going to bring me joy, and is it going to make me smile? And I think in that regard, it's successful, much like the spirit of Weird Al himself and how he makes me feel. Like, I think that the movie was successful at what it intended to do. Did it make me laugh? That's sort of a different story (laughter).
HOLMES: Yeah. Jordan, I want to ask you, how did you feel about this film in terms of either whether you took anything away from it about Al or whether you thought it was funny?
MORRIS: Yeah. So my first thought is, like, isn't it cool that this exists? It's such a, like, weird idea to do a fake biopic about this kind of cult comedy star and, you know, such a cool thing for a up-and-coming streaming network to do, you know? Streaming stuff is feeling more and more generic.
MORRIS: And it was so nice to see this, this strange passion project that, you know, was clearly filmed on a pretty tiny budget. While I don't have a quilt, I do consider Weird Al to be a national treasure. And there's a ton of fun here. But while I was watching, I was having a lot of fun, but I kept thinking, why isn't this funnier? Why aren't there more hard punchlines? Why aren't there more goofy diversions? You know, we are in a post-"Walk Hard," post-"Popstar" world of biopic parodies. Those are, like, hilarious movies where you are laughing beginning to end. And, you know, this - while it is charming how straight they play it - you know, and that's part of the joke of it - is like, what if we played this like - oh, gosh. What's the Johnny Cash one?
HOLMES: "Walk The Line." Yeah.
MORRIS: "Walk The Line." Yeah. What if we played this that straight? And while that is a very cool, you know, idea, it's a movie about Weird Al where you just don't laugh a lot.
HOLMES: Yeah. The thing that is complicated for me is I actually am kind of curious about him. I actually do think he's a fascinating guy.
HOLMES: Like, maybe I don't want an actual straight biopic. I don't know if I'm saying that. But, like, I actually am sort of fascinated by how you become this particular type of guy. And there are definitely flashes of truth. You know, his relationship with Dr. Demento is a real thing, but his parents are totally different in this movie than they were in real life. They were very supportive in real life. They are not in this. And that's part of the joke and everything. But what I kept thinking was - part of my, I guess, metric for judging this is, is this funnier than the three-minute trailer that it's expanding on?
HOLMES: And I'm not sure that I think it is. It feels to me like the stuff in the trailer, which is the very straight-ahead - you know, he was a young man who played the accordion, and they do all these little scenes with Gary Cole and Mary Steenburgen in that version as his parents, like, discovering his hidden Hawaiian shirt and all that stuff. That's all really funny. But what it reminded me of is every time that they try to make a feature that started as a sketch, I wind up in that situation where I'm like, I thought this was funny for, like, 20 minutes.
HOLMES: They have sort of done the joke. I don't know that I'm getting anything else out of this. I thought the beginning part was funny. I love Daniel Radcliffe. I love that he has decided to do all these really odd duck projects post-"Harry Potter."
HOLMES: And I think we're actually at a point now where, like, he's just a guy who does odd duck projects. I don't even think it necessarily...
CRUZ: He's just, like, a weird little guy now, you know?
MORRIS: Yeah. I mean, it's amazing that Daniel Radcliffe, at this point, could basically pick a Marvel character to be for the rest of his life, you know? Like - and by the way, he's more shirtless in this movie than you might guess.
HOLMES: More ripped then I knew.
CRUZ: He's jacked.
MORRIS: He's got the physique to do it. But it is really, really cool that he's doing, like, this, and definitely - like, points for Radcliffe for, like, post-franchise career management.
CRUZ: But I think in, like, the sketch-to-movie pipeline, I saw a Letterboxd review that made me laugh maybe more than the movie that was like, it should have been a clue-in when we saw Funny or Die pop up in the first minute of the movie 'cause I feel like...
CRUZ: ...That's a trend with a lot of stuff that they're attached to. It's sort of a premise that you think is promising, and then it's stretched out. And it's, like, oh, OK, maybe this isn't, you know, as groundbreaking as they thought it would be.
HOLMES: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of stuff like this - it's a hard length for really wacky comedy, I think. When you get into that, like, hour and a half, hour and three-quarters, that's a tough length to be wacky at, I think. I think that's one of the reasons why some of the things like "Documentary Now!" and things like that have done well being a little bit shorter as opposed to trying to always go out to feature length because even the ones that I admire the most, even "Popstar," which is a movie that I love and think is hysterically funny, in the last half hour, I was like, all right - you know? - 'cause I felt like I'd kind of seen most of what the joke was and you see kind of what most of the characterizations are and that they're fun and funny. So I'm not sure it was ever likely that this was going to carry through to me to the last minute. I do want to say there's part of me that feels like since he was involved in it, this is the biopic that Weird Al wanted. And he should have the one he wants because, as Jordan said, he's a national treasure.
HOLMES: I feel like this whole thing - this movie kind of leans into one of the kind of myths about him, which is that all he did was write these sort of, like, very direct, "I Love Rocky Road," "Eat It," "Like A Surgeon"...
HOLMES: ...Where actually, he's just a super-intelligent musician. And, you know, his understanding of genre is really profound and fascinating.
HOLMES: And I brought - just for anybody who has only heard the straight parody songs, I brought one of my favorite other Weird Al songs, and I'm going to play a little clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIGGEST BALL OF TWINE IN MINNESOTA")
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) Well, we crossed the state line about 6:39. And we saw the sign that said, twine ball exit - 50 miles. Oh, the kids were so happy, they started singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall for the 27th time that day. So we pull...
HOLMES: That is "The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota," which is...
HOLMES: ...Sort of a Harry Chapin parody. If you listen to a lot of Harry Chapin, it's got a lot of "30,000 Pounds Of Bananas," if that reference means anything to you. But it's mostly just a - it's not the same kind of parody as "Like A Surgeon." It's just a funny, silly style parody kind of in the same way that - like "One More Minute," which is a doo-wop parody. I just - I wanted to just give a moment of sparkle to the fact that he also has a whole world of other stuff. And that's not to mention the other genre, which is - Weird Al makes songs that are not polka into polka.
MORRIS: Yes, I know. So, yeah, Weird Al - he's got a richer discography than you'd think. The real Al heads, the ones with quilts...
MORRIS: If you have a quilt, then you love the original kind of style parodies. I would love to shout out his Devo parody, "Dare To Be Stupid."
CRUZ: That's exactly the one I was thinking of, too, Jordan. That's my favorite.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARE TO BE STUPID")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Talk with your mouth full. Bite the hand that feeds you. Bite off more than you can chew. What can you do? Dare to be stupid. Take some wooden nickels...
HOLMES: Reanna, do you have other favorites?
CRUZ: I like the Cake parody, "Close But No Cigar."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Oh, baby, you're close, so close but no cigar. Missed it by that much - no cigar. Aww (ph), yeah.
CRUZ: That stands out in my brain to me for some reason. I think a lot of Weird Al songs, for me, are intrinsically intertwined with my childhood, especially as somebody that's Gen Z and grew up with, like, the family computer type vibe. I remember distinctly being in elementary school and being with my friends in, like, the family computer room, gathered around the desktop, watching Weird Al videos. Like, that's something that's so personal to me. I remember, like, I was not listening to Cake when I was 8 years old. You know what I mean? But I was listening to "Close But No Cigar" and being, like, oh, this is dope. And I think, like, the sort of reverse method of Weird Al also led me to discover these artists through a sort of familiarity I developed with his style parodies.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think there are people who had the same experience with "The Simpsons" when they were kids, that they saw "The Simpsons" version of a movie or a TV show. They saw the reference on "The Simpsons" before they ever knew what the thing was. And I think he definitely did that. And I think it's so interesting because I think he - when you look at how deep his knowledge of music is and how that leads to these really wonderful but very kind of goofy parodies, it relates to something that we talk about on this show sometimes, which is that if you are making a satire of horror or rom-com or cozy mystery or whatever, you have to understand and know the thing first.
CRUZ: And I feel like something I noticed in the biopic that I've been thinking about since I watched it is that along with that point of, like, it's fun for the whole family, you know, it's just, like, simple and sweet music, we don't really have celebrities like Weird Al anymore, I think. I think he's, like, a very singular persona. I find that, honestly, something to mythologize and put in a biopic - you know what I mean? - because it's, like, so important. And I know there's liberties taken with the people that he's hanging out with, you know, and the celebrities that he's near. But that scene where it's all the cameos and it's, like, him, Tiny Tim, Divine, Elvira, Gallagher - all of these, like, weirdos of the time period - like, I was watching that. And, you know, as somebody that didn't live through it, I was like, wow, like, these are people that I can't really think of comparisons to in modern music, in modern comedy, really.
HOLMES: Well, there's something about people who were oddballs at a time when distribution channels were much more broadcast-oriented, right? So, you know, now you would probably have these kinds of people - if you want to call them lovingly weirdos or whatever - you would probably have those people having, you know, a TikTok or a YouTube outlet. It was a really different kind of thing. And I think for him, there's a moment, even with how over-the-top the movie is, he's interviewed by Oprah, and he was really interviewed by Oprah.
HOLMES: And there, you know, you kind of had to be an odd person going in through these very broadcasty (ph) distribution channels 'cause it wasn't - we didn't have this super, you know, just go out and make your own tiny, narrow, little audience. So...
MORRIS: And it's - at least the era of Weird Al that I grew up with, so much of a part of his deal was not just the song parodies, but the video parodies. Like, he was such an MTV staple. And...
MORRIS: ...I think they would do these kind of takeover days where it was Al TV instead of MTV. Yeah. And he put as much care into his video parodies as he does into the song parodies. And I think that was such an amazing, like, part of his mythology, is, like, you see the video start on MTV and you're wondering if it's the Al version or the vanilla version. And...
MORRIS: ...Then when it turns out to be the Al version, it's just so delightful. That's another fun place I would point people to - maybe before this movie would just go to YouTube and do Weird Al playlist and have yourself the greatest night of your life.
HOLMES: Most definitely. All right. Well, I think we are all very pro-Al and very pro-Daniel Radcliffe and very pro-the idea of Al appreciation. We want to know what you think about "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Reanna Cruz and Jordan Morris, thanks to both of you for being here.
MORRIS: Yeah, thanks for having us.
CRUZ: Thanks for having us.
HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, sign up for our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music, which is not a parody. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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