How ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Made a Biopic Just Like His Songs
“Yeah the truth came out/ We finally removed all doubt/ If it’s in a movie, it’s gotta be true,” sings “Weird Al” Yankovic in “Now You Know,” a new song that plays over the closing credits of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. As with most things “Weird Al”-related, it’s worth taking these words with a heavy lump of salt. “Now You Know” caps off a gloriously over-the-top and hilarious biopic — starring Daniel Radcliffe as Yankovic, and streaming now on the Roku Channel and app — that, just like Yankovic’s famed songs, is itself a many-layered parody of one of the most historically self-serious genres of cinema.
“I’ve known for a long time that any time you do something ironic or ridiculous, somebody thinks you’re being earnest,” says Yankovic today, sitting in his home with his many Grammy Awards behind him and wearing a safari hat (an attempt, he says, to tame his trademark unruly curls on a bad hair day).
So he’s prepared for the fact that some may see Weird and assume, say, that the idea for his “My Sharona” parody, “My Bologna,” came to him in a moment of quasi-divine inspiration while making a sandwich; or that he and Madonna had a lengthy, torrid love affair; or that his “Eat It” actually preceded Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But he’s fairly sure his legion of hardcore fans will know the film is only sprinkled with kernels of truth — and that anyone else will at some point realize that, like his music, it’s all in good fun. “I just hope they don’t start changing my Wikipedia entry and making me into this person in the movie,” he says with a laugh.
Just after the film’s acclaimed opening, Yankovic spoke with Billboard about how he selected the songs featured prominently in Weird, as well as what Daniel Radcliffe gets most correct in his titular portrayal, and how top 40’s preeminent parodist continues to keep up with pop music in 2022.
There’s a clear throughline from the many movie parodies in your first film, 1989’s UHF, to this entire movie being a sort of matryoshka doll of movie parodies. Why did it take so long to get from there to here?
You know, I haven’t had great luck getting my film projects greenlit over the years – it’s been 33 years between Weird Al movies, and that’s not from lack of trying. I would have liked to have more of a film career over the course of my adult life.
But I’m very thankful this one came out. This one originated as a Funny or Die video that Eric Appel directed back in 2010, and neither one of us thought it would actually be a movie — we thought it was a trailer for a movie that did not exist and would not be made. But I used it in my live shows over the years, and fans would come up to me and ask, “When’s the movie coming out?” And I’d say, “It’s not,” and they’d go, “Oh but you should!” Which I took as a compliment — but I told them, it’s a three-minute funny bit, it is what it’s supposed to be.
Nine years later, I contacted Eric, and said, “Hey, there are all these biopics coming out like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman that really play fast and loose with the facts — I think the time might be right to make the Weird Al movie an actual thing.”
Why do you think music biopics in particular are so hard to do well?
When Eric and I were doing research and getting inspired to write the screenplay, we watched a lot of music biopics and trailers both together and independently, and we noticed they all pretty much have the same beats. Two that really stand out are 1) showing moments of inspiration – usually when an artist thinks of an idea, it’s not a big cinematic moment, but all these biopics have to make it into one because it’s cinema. And 2) the chronology — sometimes things that occurred over weeks or months or years, filmmakers have them happen in the same day, or evening, or show, from a storytelling standpoint.
They take a lot of creative liberty, and I understand why that happens. As a fan of these artists, I kind of want to know the real story, but you have to accept that a biopic is almost by definition not going to be 100% true. So Eric and I decided, let’s just really lean into that.
Has anyone ever approached you wanting to do a straight biopic about you?
I think we probably got a few offers, even while we were trying to get this movie off the ground. And I’m flattered, but it’s not the movie I wanted to do or the story I wanted to tell. I know there are hardcore fans, some people who would have preferred a more serious biopic. But there hasn’t been a lot of drama in my life.
You have such a huge catalog. How did you go about picking the songs to focus on in the movie?
Eric and I decided to focus on the very beginning of my career. So even though my very earliest stuff isn’t my best or my most clever, we thought since this was an origin story of sorts, by definition we needed to focus on the very early material, the stuff I wrote and recorded between 1979 and 1985 — although anachronistically, at the end we throw in “Amish Paradise” from 1996. Because at that point in the movie all bets are off.
It’s funny to hear you say your early hits aren’t that clever!
Well, I’m not embarrassed by them, but it’s kind of like looking at baby photos. They were fine for the time they were written. But I like to think I’ve gotten better since then. I firmly believe my last seven albums are better than my first seven. But I think in the context of the movie, they work fine, and they’re still funny. And people certainly seem to have a nostalgic love for them.
In the film, “My Bologna” comes to you in what appears to be a moment of divine inspiration, but that’s of course not how it actually happened. What is your writing process actually like?
There are only a couple instances I can think of where it was a strike of inspiration. When I heard there was going to be a world premiere of the new Michael Jackson video for “Bad,” I thought, ‘I have to do something with this single,” and before I’d even finished watching the video, I thought, “I have to do a song called ‘Fat,’” cause I just visualized a 900-pound guy trying to get through the turnstile on the subway.
But more often than not, it’s a case of me laboriously going through the Billboard charts, trying to think of variations on a theme. For any given hit song, I’d come up with several dozen ideas and sit down and think, “Which one of these has the most comedic potential?” Sometimes none of them do. But usually by process of elimination, I could find a direction to take that works.
In the movie, there are many references to the idea of the “Weird Al Bump” — a sales increase artists see after you’ve parodied them. I admit, I thought it could be a real thing — but the Billboard charts department told me, “No, this doesn’t appear to be a phenomenon.”
I haven’t gone through the charts so I can’t swear either way, but I will tell you, we got a call from a gentleman from Nirvana’s record label who told us that they sold an extra million copies of Nevermind after “Smells Like Nirvana” came out. So, I was told there was a Weird Al Bump! It may not happen in every case, but I was very much told it was a real thing! Again, not to the extent it was in the movie — but I still contend there is some truth to that.
You re-recorded many of your classic songs for the movie. Did you ever consider just using original recordings?
We used the original recording of “Eat It,” because [in the movie] you only hear that on a cassette tape recorder in the record company’s office and on a TV set, so there was no need to re-record it. But most of the other songs are “live performances,” so we figured to make it sound more real we couldn’t just use the studio recording – we wanted them to feel like real live performances. So I had to literally re-record them, and supply the sound mixer with the stems so they’d sound like they were performed at an outdoor party, or in a biker bar, or wherever.
Do you think your voice sounds different now from when you first recorded these songs?
It’s changed a little – mostly I like to think my voice has gotten better, because I’ve been practicing for 40 years now. Part of it was trying not to sing too well, or trying to match that very raw quality I had when I was starting out. It’s funny, “Another One Rides the Bus” was never officially recorded in a studio – the master tape of that was an aircheck from The Dr. Demento Show. So me going into a studio 40 years later and re-recording it was a bit odd, because we never really recorded it the first time.
Watching this movie got me thinking about all the very specific legal issues you must have encountered throughout your career. In terms of your parody work, what are the challenges you’ve had to regularly deal with to get your music out?
I always use the phrase “gray area,” because it is with regard to permission. Generally the courts rule in favor of the parody artist, because it’s considered free speech — though you can still sue anybody for anything at any time, so I take pains to make sure the artist and songwriter is fine with what I’m doing. I always made a point of getting their blessing. And that’s one of the reasons I think I’ve managed to still have a career after all this time: I haven’t burned any bridges, and most artists look at it as an homage when they wind up with a Weird Al parody.
For all the people we’re impersonating in the movie, the lawyers told us not to bother getting permission, because they’re considered public figures. But we did have to have the music cleared. Queen still owns the publishing on my parody, the Michael Jackson estate still owns the publishing on my parody. So they kinda had final say on the cut of the movie.
We had a few jokes in there they made us change. In the very original script, Freddie Mercury was a character, and that was the one thing the Queen estate said: “No Freddie Mercury, you can’t even mention him, he can’t exist in your movie.” Okay, we’re fine with that. The Michael Jackson Estate made us take out one line – I’m not gonna say what it is – but just one line, and we did. But overall, they let us get away with a lot. I’m thankful that this movie exists at all, frankly, and that everybody involved had such a great attitude and sense of humor about it.
This movie has become a critical darling, and by this point in your career you pretty much have too — even your high-profile fans, like Questlove and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Josh Groban (the latter two of whom have cameos in Weird) are sort of the music elite. All of which I think speaks to a wider recognition now of the kind of real skill you have as a musician.
Yeah, that’s really nice to hear. It still blows my mind that all those people you mentioned actually enjoy my work. A lot of them kind of grew up on me. Questlove came to my Carnegie Hall show [recently] and came backstage and gave me glowing praise – and I mean, Questlove, he knows his music! His opinion means the world to me. To hear things like that from him, and Lin-Manuel, and Josh and everybody else, it’s incredibly gratifying to me. I still can’t wrap my head around it sometimes.
I know Daniel was determined not to do an impersonation of you, but it feels like he gets some truly core Weird Al essence right. What about you does he really nail?
I mean, we cast Daniel because I felt he had the right energy, I felt we were kindred spirits. It’s hard to articulate exactly how that comes across, but I feel the sweetness and the innocence in some of the early scenes, and his energy in how excited he gets about things… every now and then it really feels like he’s channeling me in all the right places.
We’re also similar in that we basically do what we want to do [creatively]. Daniel made his money and his fame early in his life, and now he does whatever he feels like doing, and I’m thankful one of them was my movie. And I’m kind of in a place as well where I’ve established and made a name for myself, I’m pretty settled, and now I feel like I want to take a chance, do some projects maybe people don’t expect me to be doing. And if I feel like doing another parody or two down the line I will — but I’m not under contract anymore, so I can do whatever I feel like.
Clearly, your job requires you to listen to and be aware of a lot of pop music. How do you stay up on what the kids are into?
Absolutely. Whenever I do a parody or a pastiche, it generally comes from me being a fan. I suppose I could do a parody of song I hated, but then I’d have to play it onstage for years. Especially with the pastiches, I pick an artist whose body of work I admire, because I have to be intimately familiar with their oeuvre to lampoon it. I’m a huge fan of pop and rock music and always have been.
I’m a little less familiar with what’s on the charts right now, just because I’m kind of taking a break from the parodies for the time being. I’m mostly learning about music right now from my daughter – we hand her the aux in the car, so she’s our DJ on road trips. But I’ve always enjoyed it and been thankful I’m able to make a living… if not in pop music, than at least pop music-adjacent.