Midway through Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, the parody artist, played by the very un-Yankovic-like Daniel Radcliffe, shows up blackout drunk and belligerent to one of his own concerts. His new girlfriend, Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), is by his side when they’re confronted backstage by his manager, Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson). “I think Madonna is a bad influence on you,” Demento says. “I think she’s an evil, conniving succubus and she’s only using you for her pathetic and selfish needs, no offense. She just wants that sweet, sweet Yankovic bump. She knows her record sales will go through the roof if you parody her.”
It’s one of the many fantastically deranged scenes in the Roku original movie (out Nov. 4), which is part biopic, part satire, and completely insane. Co-written by Yankovic and comedy writer Eric Appel (Human Giant, Crank Yankers, The Andy Milonakis Show), it takes the G-rated artist behind hits like “Amish Paradise” and “White and Nerdy” and transforms him into an abusive maniac who drops acid, bitterly taunts his own fans, and battles heavily armed South American drug lords. At almost no point does it accurately reflect even a tiny moment in Yankovic’s actual life story.
“In the past couple of years, biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have played with the truth or switched timelines around for dramatic effect,” Yankovic says. “It irked me to the point where I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do a biopic that just throws all the facts out the window.’”
Radcliffe, who portrays Yankovic in hilariously deadpan fashion, never acknowledging the absurdity around him, signed on the second he read the script. “When I saw that it was a parody of all musical biopics, I was like, ‘Of course,’” he says. “It was so clearly what a ‘Weird Al’ biopic should be.”
The roots of the movie go all the way back to 2010, when Appel thought that making a trailer for a nonexistent “Weird Al” Yankovic biopic would be a fun goof. His buddy Patton Oswalt put him in touch with Yankovic to make sure he was cool with the idea. “I thought maybe this is something he’d want to do himself someday,” says Appel. “I don’t want to steal an idea.”
Yankovic not only loved the concept, but he also wanted to help bring it to life. “We sat together and watched every biopic trailer that existed,” says Appel, “and dissected them to figure out what elements could we take to create the ultimate biopic trailer.”
Despite their minuscule budget, they managed to rope Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul into playing a fun-house-mirror version of Yankovic (“You’re all a bunch of slaves!” he screams to an audience at one point during an onstage meltdown), with Olivia Wilde, Gary Cole, Mary Steenburgen, and Oswalt all taking tiny parts. The two-and-a-half-minute video became a viral hit for Funny or Die, and Yankovic began showing it during costume changes at his concerts. “After every show, he would have people coming up to him and asking where they could see the movie,” says Appel. “They thought it was real. I also got emails from both Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde telling me we should actually make it.”
For many years, they didn’t even entertain the idea. Yankovic’s sole star vehicle, the 1989 television spoof UHF, may be a cult classic, but it was a box-office disaster that seemingly put him in movie jail for eternity. And the 2007 rock-biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which features John C. Reilly as a surreal cross of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, bombed. The idea that a UHF-meets-Walk Hard movie could ever get past Hollywood gatekeepers seemed preposterous.
Yankovic started thinking differently once 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody launched a new era of rock biopics, including Rocketman, The Dirt, Respect, and Elvis. “Out of the blue, I get an email from Al,” says Appel. “He said, ‘Hey, last year I released this career-retrospective box set, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. Would you have any interest in taking that old trailer we did and actually turning it into a real movie? We could write it together. You could direct it.’”
Appel was on board, and they hammered out the screenplay — which includes unhinged moments like Al’s father nearly murdering a door-to-door accordion salesman and Dr. Demento spiking Yankovic’s guacamole with acid — in a matter of months. They took turns writing scenes, and then would trade and punch up each other’s work. “Honestly, at this stage, I couldn’t tell you which jokes were Eric’s and which were mine,” says Yankovic, “because it was such a mind meld. We worked so well together.”
When it came time to find an actor for the lead role, Yankovic’s mind quickly went to Radcliffe. The Harry Potter actor might seem like an odd choice (for starters, he’s five feet five to Yankovic’s six feet), but he’d taken on aggressively weird roles before, including a farting corpse in the 2016 black comedy Swiss Army Man. And Yankovic never forgot seeing him sing a note-perfect rendition of Tom Lehrer’s dork-tastic “Elements Song,” about the periodic table of the elements, on The Graham Norton Show in 2010.
“I used to sing that song in college at coffeehouses,” says Yankovic. “Singing that song is an extremely nerdy thing to do. It’s off-the-charts nerdy. And I thought, ‘OK, this guy gets it. This guy’s a kindred spirit. He can embody me onscreen.’”
Radcliffe wasn’t very familiar with Yankovic’s work as a kid, but he became a fan when he started dating American actress Erin Darke 10 years ago, since her family were all superfans. “I became pretty obsessed,” he says. “My favorite songs of his are the originals, and I love the polkas.”
He even learned how to play the accordion before filming started. “I got a lesson from Al,” he says. “That’s something I can take to my grave.”
The cast was fleshed out with The Office’s Rainn Wilson as Dr. Demento, Toby Huss as Al’s father, and Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna. “Evan was incredible,” Appel says. “I said to both her and Daniel, ‘I don’t want these to be impersonations or caricatures of ‘Weird Al’ or Madonna. These should be your version of these people that is one or two clicks from reality.’”
A much harder task was finding a studio willing to bankroll such an outlandish idea. “It was very much like in the early Eighties, when I was getting my record deal,” says Yankovic. “We shopped it everywhere. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is brilliant. This is funny. This is great. It’s not for us.’”
“It’s not like it’s a super-low-budget indie movie,” he continues. “And it’s not a Marvel movie with a gazillion-dollar budget. It falls in the middle. It’s something that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy, but it’s just a hard pitch. It was a hard movie to sell.”
They finally got a bite from Roku, since the digital-media company was looking for a project to serve as its first original movie, and Appel has had a good working relationship with head of original content Colin Davis, going back to his days at Quibi. The budget Roku offered, however, was way below anything the co-writers anticipated. Once all the numbers were crunched, they realized they’d have a mere 18 days to shoot the entire thing.
“I would have loved to shoot for twice the amount of time we had,” says Appel. “But I came from the world of TV. I know how to move fast. I knew how to economize our time and our shots, and how to make the best of it, and make our small movie that was shot in 18 days look like it was shot for twice as much.”
Also on their side was Yankovic’s well-deserved reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business, and his long list of friends in comedy willing to do just about anything to help him out. That’s most evident during a pool-party scene that spoofs Boogie Nights, where Conan O’Brien, Jack Black, Jorma Taccone, Demetri Martin, Akiva Schaffer, Paul F. Tompkins, and Emo Phillips all appear in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, playing cultural icons like Andy Warhol, Wolfman Jack, Tiny Tim, and Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman).
“I’ll never forget being at base camp at the beginning of the day and watching them all show up one by one and see each other,” says Appel. “It was at a point in the pandemic where people hadn’t really been together much. These people hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so it was a very, very fun vibe with a lot of laughs.”
Another surprise was the massive amount of attention the shoot generated in the mainstream press and social media. Paparazzi hung out near the set trying to get a shot of Radcliffe in character, and he was pummeled with questions about the movie while promoting The Lost City earlier this year. “We felt bad,” says Appel. “Al and I emailed Dan and were like, ‘Hope you’re not getting in trouble since there are so many questions about this.’”
“This was announced around the same time as the HBO Harry Potter reunion special,” Radcliffe adds. “And I got so many more texts about this. Since I know so many comedy nerds, my social circle was more like, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe that’s happening.’”
There was some initial concern that the movie would struggle to find an audience because it’s not being distributed by one of the major streamers. “On my Twitter timeline, I kept saying, ‘Oh, I’m not paying for another streaming service,’” says Yankovic. “It’s free! You just go there, and there it is!” But once it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, gushing reviews began pouring in, and those fears started to dissolve. He just hopes that audiences are prepared to go along for the crazy ride.
“Like my songs, I wanted it to start out fairly normal, so people are like, ‘Wait, is this real?’” he says. “And then by the second act, it’s just pure lunacy. We wanted people to always be thinking, ‘Wait, did this really happen?’”