It started with a two-and-a-half-minute movie trailer that asked the question: What if you made a serious biopic about "Weird Al" Yankovic, portraying the notoriously family-friendly, accordion-playing parody musician as a hard-living rock star haunted by his own genius?
"All these biopics that come out, play so fast and loose with the facts, and typically, the person that is the subject of these movies are long dead, so it's a little harder to fact check," says Eric Appel, who wrote and directed the aforementioned short for Funny or Die. "I had this idea, 'Oh, it'd be really funny to do a biopic about someone who's still alive and just completely make the story up."
Appel reached out to comedian Patton Oswalt to put him in touch with Yankovic, and before he knew it, Appel recalls, "I was at a coffee shop with Weird Al, watching biopic trailers on his laptop with him. He was like, 'I'd love to collaborate with you on this.'" The video premiered online in 2013, with the caption: "This film is sure to sweep next year's Academy Awards."
Now, almost 10 years later, that fake trailer has become a feature-length biopic, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Yankovic, Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna, and Rainn Wilson as Yankovic's mentor, Dr. Demento. The movie expertly parodies the beats of other music biopics, following the artist's triumphant rise to fame, tragic downfall, and triumphant return to the stage, except this time to the tune of "Weird Al" and an outright fictionalized and deeply silly version of his life.
In a conversation with A.frame, Appel discusses his unexpected friendship with Yankovic, how he packed so many celebrity cameos in one movie, and the deleted scene of Al and Madonna riding a tandem bike.
A.frame: You've essentially collaborated on this with Weird Al for almost a decade, going all the way back to the parody trailer. How has that process been?
Al's just such a great guy, and he's really good at keeping in touch with people. He bought gifts for my kids when they were born, and I really only knew him from making this trailer. He showed it for a decade at his concerts — he'd show it during a costume change — and randomly in February of 2019, I get this email from him: "Hey, I'm trying to figure out what my next thing's going to be. I just released this career retrospective box set. What do you think about making this movie a reality?" I was like, "What are you doing tomorrow morning? Let's go. Let's start batting around ideas." And writing it with him was such a joy. I mean, he influenced my sense of humor so much growing up that we're really in line. We find the same things funny.
Obviously, so much of this is fictionalized for parody, but when you were writing, were there any surprise stories from Al that came close to the absurdity onscreen?
It's funny, I feel like I'm the first biopic director in history to not have to do any research at all about my subject because we're like, "Let's just make the story up!" But I would say the thing that's kind of closest — well, not really closest — but an interesting jumping-off point for one of our threads in the movie was Madonna. Madonna's like this archvillain who will stop at nothing to get Weird Al to parody her song, and the truth behind that is when Al did "Like a Surgeon," he had heard that Madonna said, "When's Weird Al going to parody my song?"
It's just taking that little nugget of truth and spinning it into something. The story needs a villain — let's make it Madonna! In the original trailer that we made, the Al and Madonna relationship is more like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. She's crying, like, "You're an alcoholic!" In this one, she's the one feeding him alcohol to weaken him. She's very mustache-twisty. That sort of blossomed throughout the writing process.
Moving on to who's playing Weird Al. There were reports that Daniel Radcliffe was on board almost from the start and that he wanted to learn accordion?
Well, he was like, "Why me? I'm considerably shorter than you are, Al." Honestly, if this were a traditional biopic telling the true story of Weird Al, yeah, Daniel Radcliffe's a bizarre choice for that. In our version of the movie and this weird version of Al that we've created, there's no one more perfect than Daniel Radcliffe. But once we got him on board with that in our first conversation, his follow-up question was, "Great. Can you recommend an accordion for me to buy? I'm going to start." This was before the movie was greenlit. This was a year and a half before we went into pre-production. We didn't even have financing or anyone, Roku wasn't involved at this point, and he was like, "I'm going to start learning accordion in anticipation of this movie getting made someday."
You use Al's vocals in the film. Was there ever a conversation about Daniel singing?
I mean, Dan's been on Broadway. He's a great singer. He could have totally pulled it off. He sang on set along with the tracks just to make it look more realistic, like he was singing. But I think one day I asked Al, "Hey, do we want Dan to sing the songs?" And Al was just like, "No." And I was like, "All right, great. I'll leave it there." One of the fun things about this was that Al re-recorded all of the songs that are in the movie. He went back into the studio with his band and re-recorded them, so we could get all the isolated tracks, and there's slightly different arrangements based on what's in the scene. So, I got to go into the studio with Al and his band who I'm fans of, too. I've known who Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz is since I was 12 years old, so it was pretty amazing getting to go into the studio with those legends.
The film is packed with wall-to-wall cameos. What was the process of getting all of those stars to appear in this? And was there anyone you weren't able to get?
I remember at one point — and I can't remember for the life of me what character it was — but I know that we reached out to Mark Hamill and he was unavailable. Which would've been amazing. I was like, "Oh man, we're going to have Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker in a scene together! That's pretty epic!" Basically, it was like Al's list of people that he sends holiday cards to. He was like, "These are people that I'm comfortable enough to shoot an email to or shoot them a text and ask them if they want to do it." It's amazing how quickly people got back. I'm talking huge stars, and in some cases, within 10 minutes of Al asking, he's texting me, "They're in. They're just asking, 'When and where do I show up?'"
A lot happens in the film, and it was only shot in 18 days! Was there any absurd parody bit that you weren't able to fit in?
Yes, I will say that there was a date montage with Al and Madonna. It was funny but it would've taken a full day to shoot, and when it boiled down to it, it would've had a minute and a half of screen time. It was a cheesy dating thing after they've been in bed together. It was Al and Madonna riding on a tandem bike. There was a beat where they're buying all the balloons from a balloon vendor at the park, and then it cuts and there's all these children crying who can't get balloons now and they're lost in their own romance. There was another really funny part where they're in a shop drinking a milkshake together, and Al playfully puts whipped cream on his finger and puts a dollop on Madonna's nose, and she just, like, cold-cocks him. And then it cuts to a butcher shop and he's got a steak on his eye and they're laughing about it. It would've been fun to shoot.
By Elizabeth Stanton