One Weird movie

LA.WeirdAl.jpg

One Weird movie

What — were you expecting Weird to be normal? Toward the end of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, the movie’s subject, played by Daniel Radcliffe, ventures into the jungles of Colombia for a showdown with drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Yankovic sneaks up on two henchmen, breaks one’s neck, and takes his machine gun to kill the other. Once inside the kingpin’s lair, he unloads a spray of bullets at more drug runners before chucking a platinum mini-record into Escobar’s skull.

It’s the most absurd scene in this very absurd movie, which isn’t a biopic at all but a parody of the parodist — the curly-haired mind behind “My Bologna,” “Eat It,” “Fat,” and even some spoofs not about food — that transforms him from an accordion-playing, strait-laced, soft-spoken geek into a gun-wielding, substance-abusing, celebrity-dating … accordion-playing legend.

As absurd as it is, the movie’s over-the-top encounter with Escobar is fascinating in light of a controversy that flared up this past summer. A reporter for an alternative newspaper attended a “Weird Al” concert and criticized Yankovic for performing songs that depicted “the extreme anger and resentment of a young man.” The song “Good Old Days,” for example, alternates between sappy reminiscences of simpler times and disturbing memories of an obviously deranged young man who tortured animals, kidnapped his girlfriend, and beat his boss.

The reviewer complained that “in today’s fraught political climate,” particularly in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting and Jan. 6, the “pattern of resentment” in Yankovic’s music is “troubling” and “ominous.” The critic lamented of the show, “I wanted to feel good. But I couldn’t.” Yankovic might as well have gone full Ozzy and bitten a bat’s head.

The review demonstrates how cultural hypersensitivity can inspire embarrassing humorlessness and transcendent self-parody. There’s no doubt that Yankovic’s humor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to fret over its depiction of what amounts to toxic masculinity is to miss the joke completely. His songs don’t glamorize violence — they mock it.

But attempted cultural cancellations rarely rely on reason, and it’s easy to imagine a world in which this summer’s critical review inspired a reckoning that compelled Yankovic to expunge the offending songs from his setlist, issue an apology, donate money to a charity — and, of course, tone down his new movie’s absurd violence. None of that happened, though, which is a reassuring victory for sanity and humor (if not good taste). Count it as another example of Yankovic’s remarkable staying power.

During his four decades as a recording artist, Yankovic has weathered countless changes in pop music, a box office flop (1989’s UHF), and a well-documented addiction to Hawaiian shirts. His biggest hits are based on songs performed by stars who long ago bit the dust or moonwalked into eternity — and another who only recently went on his own fantastic voyage. He’s had 10 songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100, eight albums break the top 20 of the Billboard 200, and — are you sitting down? — has six certified platinum albums.

But Weird isn’t really about Yankovic’s life. The script, co-written by Yankovic and director Eric Appel, mocks many conventions of the music biopic, including those cheesy scenes when a song idea creeps up on a songwriter. We not only witness the soul-stirring genesis of “My Bologna” but also see Yankovic miss all the big fat clues for another of his best-known songs. But unlike another very funny biopic parody, 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Weird doesn’t try to capture the subject’s entire career through a variety of trends and eras. Instead, we get a compressed version that discards chronology and embraces anachronism: It’s set in the mid-’80s yet features Yankovic’s parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” released a decade later. The humor combines ridiculous hyperbole with winning self-deprecation: This Weird Al is larger than life, but only as “perhaps not technically the best but arguably most famous accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music.”

In the movie, the young Yankovic is a lonely child whose mother tells him, “Your dad and I had a long talk, and we agreed that it would be best for all of us if you would just stop being who you are and doing the things you love.” When he buys an accordion from a salesman, he has to play it in the closet to hide it from his father. But Yankovic endures, thanks in part to the support of his college friends and the guidance of wacky radio DJ Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson). Before long, he’s a multiplatinum star whose parodies boost the careers of every artist he spoofs. Alas, success can sow the seeds of our destruction! Yankovic’s ascent attracts femme fatale Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who Yoko Onos his relationships, sends him into a spiral of alcohol abuse, and has a hand in his untimely demise.

Radcliffe’s depiction of Yankovic is cocky, aggressive, and downright mean — traits you expect from neither the actor nor the subject. Adding to the oddness is that the version of Yankovic narrating the movie is voiced not by Radcliffe but by Diedrich Bader (The Drew Carey Show, Office Space). And while in most biopics, the actors perform the songs themselves, here, Radcliffe lip-syncs to Yankovic’s voice. In one scene, he does it so poorly that I thought my internet connection was lagging. Meanwhile, Yankovic himself plays the record executive who signs Yankovic.

There are cameos galore. Weird Al’s first movie featured a pre-The Nanny Fran Drescher, an early-Seinfeld Michael Richards, and a post-Saturday Night Live Victoria Jackson — at the time, not exactly star-studded. As a mark of the rise in esteem for Yankovic, this one has Conan O’Brien, Jack Black, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael McKean, and Will Forte.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was inclined to enjoy this movie. I was one of the few souls who watched Yankovic’s first movie in the theater. That night in 1989, I felt defensive when after one gag, a man sitting in front of me looked at his friend and asked, “Is that supposed to be funny?” My first live pop concert was a Weird Al show. During a romantic ballad, a tuxedo-attired Yankovic took off his bow tie and gave it to a lucky fan. He tossed his ascot to another. And then, approaching my section, he pulled a pair of boxers from his pants and bestowed them to a woman sitting right behind me. For some reason, she didn’t want them, and, long story short, they currently reside in a safety deposit box at my bank, where they’ll stay until I get a call from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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