Daniel Radcliffe in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

How Weird Al Yankovic changed the game, again.

9 minutes to read
Ot van de Rijzen

Contrary to the beliefs of George F. Custen in his work Bio/pics : how Hollywood constructed public history (1992), the biographical film genre is very much alive (again) in the current Hollywood filmmaking landscape. In recent years, there have been biopics, as they are more commonly known, dedicated to musical greats such as Elvis Presley, Queen, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John. When going over the list of artists who have a biopic movie about them, one name stands out in particular. This is not the first time in his career that Weird Al Yankovic stands out among other artists, and his movie, titled Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is also quite a bit different than the other biopics. In fact, even calling it a biopic could be a contentious stance to take. After all, a biopic usually has to have a core of truth to it, and it is unsure whether this film has enough of that. This paper will look at the film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and answer the question of what genre it belongs to, and what the relation of the film is to truth.

A spoiler alert is in place, as this paper will cover some of the important plot points of the film, including the ending.

Background Information on Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Before we dissect the movie, some background knowledge is required. Weird Al Yankovic is the stage name of, you might not believe it, Al Yankovic. Weird Al made a name for himself as a parody artist. Armed with his now iconic accordion, Weird Al would write and record songs with alternative, humorous lyrics. Some examples of his original-to-parody hits are Michael Jackson’s Beat It (Eat It), Madonna’s Like a Virgin (Like a Surgeon), and Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ (White & Nerdy). Having started his career in the late 1970s, it says something about the positive reputation and impact on pop culture that the biopic was well received over 45 years later. 

In an interview with late-night talk show host Seth Myers, Yankovic revealed that the movie is based on a trailer from 2010 for a satirical biopic about Weird Al for Funny or Die, a comedy video production company. Most of the humor would stem from the fact that Yankovic was not only still very much alive, but also notorious for not living the wild “Rock N’ Roll” lifestyle that many famous artists who receive biopics do. When Yankovic showed this trailer during his concerts, people wondered when the actual movie would come out, and so eventually the movie came to fruition twelve years later. The producer then, Eric Appel, co-wrote and directed the actual biopic as well. 

The plot follows the life and career of Weird Al (portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, who joined Yankovic in the Seth Myers interview), in a way that according to the man himself “plays fast and loose with the facts”. Some of the highlights of the film include him getting his first accordion, a wild relationship with superstar Madonna, a lot of substance abuse issues, and a shoutout with Pablo Escobar. Oh, and of course the ending, where Weird Al Yankovic dies.

How much reality, how much fiction?

That bombshell is an excellent bridge to move on to the main discussion in this paper. Since Weird Al Yankovic is alive, and he dies in the movie, it would be easy to assume that the entire movie is nothing but falsities and fiction. However, there are actually a few nuggets of truth sprinkled throughout the film, rooting the movie in the actual life of Yankovic. The way he acquired his accordion, via a traveling salesman, and how his first parody My Bologna was recorded in a public bathroom (Late Night with Seth Meyers, 2022). Yet, even these events were portrayed in ways that changed or omitted some of the real-life details. In the film, the fact that the traveling salesman also offered lessons for the instruments was omitted, for example. And the location of the public bathroom for My Bologna was altered from the across-the-campus radio station to a bus station (Cox, 2022). 

Thus, the viewer has almost no way of knowing which details in the movie are truthful to Yankovic’s life, and which are altered or completely made up. This is where it becomes important to discuss what the definition of fiction is, in order to determine in what ways the film plays with the concept. 

Alas, defining fiction is something that is not as simple as it seems. For this paper, we will go with the definition established by Cohn (1999), who has several requirements about fiction. To start with: “The principal process by which fiction alters the actual world is by implanting within it made-up characters” (Cohn, 1999, p.15). This is interesting because this suggests that fiction can only contain made-up characters. Yet, in my interpretation, this can be subverted by stating that every seemingly real person that appears in fiction, is a made-up version of this person, an artistic interpretation from the author if you like. Given that the Weird Al biopic contains a multitude of impressions of real-life people, this theory holds up, as these are parody versions of those people. 

Cohn also states that "while fiction might refer to the actual world and offer imaginative manipulations of more or less well-known facts, it should not be subjected to simple judgments of truth and falsity” (Cohn, 1999, p.15). This quote supports the creative license of writers and artists, and also at the same time distinguishes it from phenomena such as fake news. Fake news differs from fiction because where fiction is generally meant for entertainment purposes, fake news is meant to deliberately misinform (Waisbord, 2018). This film takes the creative license to its absolute limits, and does so consciously and purposefully, to make the fictional elements abundantly clearly present. This, thus, too holds up.

The last quote by Cohn that I will discuss here is: “Fiction is dissensive and subversive" (Cohn, 1999, p.15), because Weird: The Al Yankovic Story certainly subverts both viewer expectation and the traits of the traditional biopic. It also perfectly fits with the theory on fiction by Tomko (2007), who states: 

“In the bourgeois context in which modern fiction emerged, readers were trained to critically reflect on it. The famous slogan “willing suspension of disbelief” by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is often brought up in this context and can be understood as an advise to the readers to suspend the distrust and go along in the imagination with expressed judgements and doctrines from which they would dissent in the ordinary world.” 

The entire movie is reliant on this suspension of disbelief. From start to finish, the film, as Yankovic stated himself, “plays fast and loose with the facts”. These quotes together make for a solid definition of what fiction is, and the analysis shows that our case fits into that definition.

Now, as discussed in the introduction of this paper, there have been a lot of biopics in recent years. Aside from those, there are also a lot of films that depict historical events or characters in dramatized and exaggerated ways. These actions have been pointed out by critics, who argue that such portrayals of historical facts and figures are harmful, as they can sway public opinion by providing audiences with inaccurate versions of historical facts. The writers and scriptwriters of these films defend their choices by arguing that dramatic license permits them to do this in order to construct a better story. This all is an example of what Castillo & Egginton (2017) call the “erosion of reality”. The hyperrealities, as these exaggerated and dramatized realities are referred to, slowly pick away at facts and reality, until they become changed in the minds of the public.

As an artist who achieved his fame through parody, it seems only fitting that Yankovic took these biopics that featured hyperrealities and turned his own biopic into a parody of that. What genre it belongs to, however, requires some further analysis.

Generally, when talking about a piece of media that combines fiction with documentary traits, there are four options for what the piece can be considered. This is dependent on the form and the content. Naturally, if both have the characteristics of either, it’s either simply a documentary or pure fiction. If it has a documentary format but contains fictional content, it can be considered a mockumentary. Is it the other way around, then it becomes a docudrama.

Let us flesh out those two concepts. A docudrama or drama-documentary takes real historical events, as well as characters, and turns them into a film using cinematic narrative structure, together with acting and visual techniques and conventions (Lipkin et al., 2006, p.15). Here the audience is not necessarily aware of the creative liberties that are taken. A mockumentary however depends on the audience’s knowledge of the topic and the awareness of the mocking nature of the work, as the name suggests.  This awareness allows for the humor to come through, as well as the cultural and/or political critiques present in the piece.

As you may have realized, the Weird Al biopic falls somewhere in between these two. It fits most of the description of the docudrama, yet relies on the audience’s knowledge and awareness of the mockumentary. Luckily, Lipkin et al. (2006) offer another option, that manages to fit our case perfectly: faction. Faction is “a TV program/film using a real world template of events and characters to create a fiction that runs in parallel to a set of known occurrences. Factions rely on their audiences to connect with the parallel “out of story” factual template in reception” (Lipkin et al., 2006, p.15-16). This definition fits perfectly with what we earlier established about Cohn’s theories, as it means that the characters are a fictional parallel to their real-world counterparts. Additionally, it covers how the biopic contains many events and occurrences that do not correlate with the life that Yankovic has led in real life. Lastly, it contains the mockumentary trait of relying on the audience to be in on the joke, as is very much the case with our case as well.

The timing of this biopic is something that is worthwhile discussing, too. After all, Weird Al Yankovic has been around for decades, and even the original fake trailer that sprouted the idea for this film was produced in 2010. Thus, a closer inspection is warranted regarding this timing. The reason most probably has to do with the popularity of biopics in recent years, with many big artists getting one as previously mentioned.

Aside from this reason, the timing is interesting for an additional reason. Since 2010, fake news has emerged as a prevalent part of our society, notably in the discussion surrounding the 2016 United States of America presidential election. The winner of this election, Donald Trump, is very much associated with the term. Together with the development of digital and social media, this deliberate misinformation as Waisbord (2018) mentioned has become a clear issue in contemporary society.

One could argue that with the lines between what is the truth and what is fake or inaccurate being blurred more than ever before, the timing of a work so heavily rooted in faction is poor. Be that as it may, this would ignore possibly the most defining trait of Yankovic’s persona: humor. Yankovic embraced the word “Weird” in his stage name with the purpose of signaling that he did not take the world too seriously. His songs, besides being musically sound, are wacky, silly, and humorous. This bled through into the film too. Yankovic explained in the aforementioned interview with Seth Myers that they chose Daniel Radcliffe to play the role of Weird Al because he had the skills of both a dramatic and a comedic actor (Late Night with Seth Meyers, 2022). The entire movie is played straight, as biopics normally are, but it is the playing straight of a bizarre plot that makes it a very funny film. Therefore, rather than it being harmful in a society that struggles with matters of fake news and truth, the movie provides a refreshing take on the matter instead.

Weird Al, weird biopic

This paper has covered how the film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is significantly different from other biopics that have appeared in recent years. It is a parody of the genre, about an artist who has become known for his parodies, and thus leans far more heavily into the drama and exaggeration that come with this genre. The paper discussed the definition of fiction, and how the film fits into this definition. It belongs to the biopic genre, but only barely, as it is a true work of faction. We live in a society where misinformation has become far more common, and thus we have to spend a lot more time doing our own research and fact-checking the information we receive. This film recognizes that, and subsequently decides to lean so heavily into surrealism, because it trusts that its audience will understand that it is all just a bit of fun. In a world that is caught in a debate over truth and fake news, this piece of media manages to fall right in between all the other categories. Which, in my opinion, is a nice change of pace. 


Castillo, D. & Egginton, W. (2017). Medialogies: Reading Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media, Bloomsbury, 2017 

Cox, D. (2022). Here's What Is Actually True in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Collider. 

Custen, G. F. (1992). Bio/pics: how Hollywood constructed public history. Choice Reviews Online, 30(03), 30–1411.  

Late Night with Seth Meyers. (2022, November 3). Weird Al Yankovic Recorded His First Single in a Public Bathroom [Video]. YouTube. 

N. Lipkin, S., Paget, D., & Roscoe, J. (2006). Docudrama and Mock-Documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking.

Tomko, M. (2007). Politics, Performance, and Coleridge’s "Suspension of Disbelief". Victorian Studies, 49(2), 241–249. 

Waisbord, S. (2018). Truth is What Happens to News. Journalism Studies, 19(13), 1866–1878.