Theaters, streaming services, and motion picture studios’ production schedules are positively bursting with rock ‘n’ roll biopics, but music geeks — including “Weird Al” Yankovic — are often frustrated with how most directors and screenwriters take so many massive liberties with the truth.
“Like at the Troubadour, we know that [Elton John] didn't levitate, but some people will probably think he really did play ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour, even though he hadn't written that until four years later. It's just the little things like that that they changed which drove me nuts,” says Yankovic, referring to one of the most successful major music biopics in recent years, Rocketman. “You have to realize it's not a documentary — it's a Hollywood biopic, it's entertainment — but as a fan, it drove me crazy! ... So, I thought when I do my biopic, we're just throwing facts out the window. Like, who cares?”
Yankovic is discussing Roku’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, his new semi-semi-semi-autographical film that manages to out-Spinal Tap This Is Spinal Tap and out-Dewey Cox Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Inspired by a Funny or Die fake movie trailer that went viral back in 2010, Weird has precious little in common with Yankovic’s rather PG-rated actual life. For instance: No, Al didn’t have a torrid affair with Madonna, and no, he didn’t flatline and come back to life on an emergency room operating table after swigging a bottle of booze and crashing his car. But there are some truths, or at least half-truths, that serve as key Weird plot points… and one of them is the famous “Yankovic Bump.”
In Weird, two-timing girlfriend Madonna (so uncannily portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood that Wood should be cast in Madonna’s future biopic) seduces Al (an unrecognizable and equally spot-on Daniel Radcliffe) in order to convince him to spoof her hit “Like a Virgin.” The careerist pop starlet wants to experience the “Yankovic Bump,” a phenomenon that causes an artist’s record sales to spike after receiving Al’s parody treatment. And apparently, the Yankovic Bump is a real thing.
“You know, there are some nuggets of truth sprinkled throughout the movie, most of which sound as fake as everything else, but they're absolutely true. And this ‘Yankovic Bump’ thing is actually one of the things that's based in reality,” Yankovic tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I have heard from a number of artists that their sales went up when my parody came out. We heard from Nirvana's label, profusely thanking me — they said, ‘Oh, we sold like another million units of Nevermind after “Smells Like Nirvana” came out.’ I don't have all the data in front of me, but it's certainly happened more than once.”
Another Weird moment based on real life is a brief appearance by a vengeful Coolio, played by LeChristopher Williams. In 1996, the actual Coolio — unlike Weird's fictionalized Madonna after "Like a Surgeon" — had been furious over Yankovic’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” spoof, “Amish Paradise.” Thankfully, the two did eventually resolve their unlikely feud. ("In hindsight, that was not one of my most cerebral moments. ... It wasn't cool. And I'm supposed to be 'Coolio,'" the rapper admitted to Yahoo Entertainment in 2020.)
When Coolio died on Sept. 28 of this year, just as the Weird promotional machine was kicking into high gear, Yankovic paid tribute by posting a photo on Instagram of himself and Coolio embracing. Yankovic concedes that the Coolio reference in Weird is now awkwardly timed — as is another faux celebrity cameo, by Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, when Weird was screened at Los Angeles’s Beyond Fest on Oct. 6, during the audience Q&A one fan even gasped, “Queen Elizabeth? Coolio? Is this a cursed film?”
“Everybody in this movie will eventually die!” Yankovic jokes. But more seriously, regarding whether he ever considered removing the Coolio scene, he says, “The picture was locked; if Coolio had passed while we were editing, that would've been a discussion, but it was sort of like the train had left the building. It was a little embarrassing, or awkward at least: The day that the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was the day that Queen Elizabeth died, and there's a bit with Queen Elizabeth during the end credits. And people were like, ‘Ohhhh!’ It just hit really weird. It's the same thing with Coolio. I mean, obviously that cameo isn't hitting the same way that I was intending it to hit. But obviously Coolio and I had patched things up and we were on good terms, and it's a joke. I was hoping that he would be around to see it in the movie. I would've hoped that he would’ve gotten a kick out of it.”
Speaking of cursed films, one has to wonder if all the early positive buzz for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is the ultimate revenge for 1989’s UHF, Yankovic’s underrated comedy feature which was a critical and commercial bomb upon its release. “I don't look at it in terms of revenge, but it's a rebirth,” says Yankovic, who admits that UHF’s failure really stung at time.
“People have kind of come around to [UHF] and they look at it very nostalgically now and it's a ‘cult classic,’ but it did not get good reviews," Yankovic recalls. "And not only did I put a lot into it, but it was built up so much. Orion Pictures had tested it with the audiences and the test scores were through the roof; it was like one of their biggest, highest-testing movies ever. And they thought, ‘Oh, we're going to put this out in the middle of this blockbuster summer and this is gonna be a cash cow and this is going to be a start of long movie career for you!’ I was being built up like this, and then literally after the first weekend when it under underperformed at the box office, I was a ghost at Orion Pictures. Nobody wanted to establish eye contact. It was really weird and just kind of odd to have the rug pulled out from under me like that, because I was getting built up so much and then within a couple days, nothing. So, that was kind of devastating, and it took me kind of a while… I don't know if I would say I was depressed, because I've always been a pretty happy, up kind of guy, but it was not pleasant. I probably had a couple of years of licking my wounds before I could kind of come back and be creative again.”
And it took 33 years before Yankovic would come back with another feature film. In his original end-credits song for Weird, “Now You Know,” he sings about his hopes for a well-deserved Best Song Oscar nomination, but unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen — which is the one bittersweet aspect of Weird’s release.
“I have to say [that line in “Now You Know”] is yet another lie, because as it turns out, the movie will not be Oscar-eligible,” Yankovic laments. “I've been begging, begging the Roku Channel for months to make it eligible, which all that would involve is letting it play in a theater in L.A. for one week. They do not want do that because — here's the logic; I don't quite agree with it — they said that they would rather have a Creative Arts Emmy than an Oscar, because they're in the TV business, not the music movie business. Believe me, I've tried, but they've put their foot down, so it's not actually going be Oscar-eligible. But… maybe an Emmy! We’ll see.”
Regardless of whether there are any more awards in the five-time Grammy-recipient’s near future, Yankovic has already won at life by bringing his life story to the screen in his own twisted way — and garnering the raves that eluded him three decades ago. “It's great. I'm so thrilled. It's amazing to me and gratifying that on top of the fans' reaction, [Weird] is actually getting great critical reviews,” he says. “I think it's 93% on Rotten Tomatoes right now — which is not shabby.”
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— Video produced by Kyle Moss, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick