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'Weird' Al Yankovic on his new biopic starring Daniel Radcliffe

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for a fact check. Film critics are unanimous. "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" is the greatest film in the history of cinema. It's been compared to the "Battleship Potemkin," "Breathless" and "Seven Samurai." It's the front-runner for the Oscar, the Palme d'Or and the Nobel Peace Prize. Directed by Eric Appel from a script written with Al Yankovic, it tells the fully authenticated story of a man who ends the climate crisis, inflation and flatulence by writing and recording song parodies that elevate the accordion to the artistry intended by Johann Sebastian Bach. The film stars Daniel Radcliffe, who's not nearly handsome enough to play Weird Al Yankovic, along with Evan Rachel Wood, Rainn Wilson, Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson. And Al Yankovic, who, of course, is often considered the leading candidate for secretary-general of the United Nations, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Thank you. And thanks so much for noticing all of the above.

SIMON: The film really does star Daniel Radcliffe. Are you disappointed you couldn't get a bigger star to play you?

YANKOVIC: You know, when I look at Daniel Radcliffe, it's kind of like looking in a mirror. He's, like, an exact physical doppelganger.

SIMON: Ha.

YANKOVIC: It's uncanny.

SIMON: I'm sorry. A laugh seemed to just seize my throat. Yes, go ahead, please.

YANKOVIC: But seriously, Daniel was always our first pick because I was just so impressed by his acting range because he can play comedic roles extremely well. And he also does very serious, intense, dramatic roles very well. And we wanted to, you know, have both sides of the coin 'cause it is, in fact, a comedy movie. But there are some - you know, you need to have some serious dramatic acting chops because there are some intense scenes in this.

SIMON: Well, there are, and I didn't know we'd get serious so early on. But for the first seven-eighths of the film, your father is shown as being hardhearted and brutal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY")

TOBY HUSS: (As Nick) What in God's name are you're doing? Those aren't the right words.

RICHARD AARON ANDERSON: (As Young Al) I made them better.

HUSS: (As Nick) By changing the lyrics to a well-known song?

ANDERSON: (As Young Al) But Dad...

HUSS: (As Nick) What has gotten into you, Alfred?

SIMON: Everything I have read suggests that is absolutely not what your father was like at all. So how do you feel about that portrait of your father even if it's meant to be satiric?

YANKOVIC: You know, I think my dad would have gotten a kick out of that. And we had to do that because this is a standard Hollywood biopic, and you can't have a biopic unless you have a troubled childhood and a dramatic arc where your parents are fighting against your inner essence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY")

JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (As Mary) Honey, I know it's hard to hear this, but your dad and I had a long talk. And we agreed it would be best for all of us if you just stop being who you are and doing the things you love.

SIMON: I see. To get the film made, you had to make - it could take a few dramatic license steps, yeah.

YANKOVIC: A few concessions here and there, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. In this film, Madonna is an important character in your life.

YANKOVIC: Yes.

SIMON: I'm sorry if it's painful for you to talk about it. I apologize in advance. She is shown using you in all ways - sexually, commercially - taking advantage of your fame and brilliance to latch on and become a huge star in her own right. Have you ever actually met Madonna?

YANKOVIC: Yes. And everything you just said is not entirely true. I do not have a relationship with Madonna, platonic or otherwise.

SIMON: I've been told you met her for about 45 seconds.

YANKOVIC: That's correct. Yeah, I met her backstage at one of her shows back in, I think, 1985.

SIMON: Yeah.

YANKOVIC: So that's the extent of our actual relationship. But I took that one little nugget of truth and expanded it into a whole dramatic arc.

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY")

YANKOVIC: (As Weird Al) Dr. Demento was right. You were just using me to further your own career, weren't you?

EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Madonna) Yeah. My relationship with you was a business decision. It's all just business.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: (As Weird Al) OK, then. Have a nice life.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

RADCLIFFE: (As Weird Al) Whoa.

WOOD: (As Madonna) I can't let you leave, Al. You know too much.

RADCLIFFE: (As Weird Al) What are you talking about?

YANKOVIC: She's basically a sociopath that is doing everything possible to get the Yankovic bump. And the Yankovic bump is an actual thing because whenever I do a parody song, the original artist actually experiences a spike in record sales. That's a real thing.

SIMON: Yeah. I've also been told that, in fact, the suggestion for your song "Like A Surgeon" - did it come from Madonna?

YANKOVIC: It did. And some people say that Madonna asked me to do that. I don't - I wouldn't say that. From what I heard, she was just kind of musing out loud to a friend of hers one day. Oh, I wonder what Weird Al's is going to do - "Like A Surgeon" - 'cause it seemed like the obvious thing to do. And her friend happened to know my manager, and word got back to me. And I thought, well, not a bad idea. So, yeah, she did indirectly suggest that title for the song. So, again, we took that little nugget and blew it up into (laughter) the character that she becomes in the movie.

SIMON: Can't believe I'm asking you a serious question, but here goes. Were you...

YANKOVIC: Oh.

SIMON: Were you trying to say something, show something about biopics?

YANKOVIC: Well, the whole joke is that biopics take so many creative liberties that they really can't be trusted whatsoever.

SIMON: Yeah.

YANKOVIC: Even documentaries, sometimes you can't trust 100%. But biopics are made purely for entertainment purposes. And they're based in reality, but they take a lot of liberties. And when I saw movies like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Rocketman," both of which I really liked - and I'm a huge Queen fan and a huge Elton John fan - it irked me because I saw so many times when they just arbitrarily changed facts or changed the chronology. And as a fan, that disturbed me. But I understood on some level why they did it. But I just thought, like, oh, if I ever do my own biopic, I'm just going to throw facts out the window.

SIMON: I want to ask you about "Amish Paradise" because we find the true origin story, of course, in this film.

YANKOVIC: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMISH PARADISE")

YANKOVIC: (Rapping) I'm a man of the land. I'm into discipline. Got a Bible in my hand and a beard on my chin. But if I finish all of my chores and you finish thine, then tonight we're going to party like it's 1699.

(Singing) We been spending most our lives living in an Amish paradise. I've churned butter once or twice living in an Amish paradise.

SIMON: And, of course, it's a cover of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." Now, Coolio - Artis Ivey Jr. - unfortunately left us this year. He did not initially like "Amish Paradise." But you two reached some kind of rapprochement or something?

YANKOVIC: That's true. Initially, there was - I guess there was a beef. I don't know. I live my life pretty much drama-free. But that was an occasion which was very unfortunate because I always prided myself on getting the artist's blessing and permission ahead of time. And I thought I had Coolio's. But as it turns out - and I just found this out actually fairly recently. The misunderstanding was that my record label had gotten permission from Coolio's producer, but not from Coolio himself. So his producer was fine. But when my parody came out, Coolio was a bit miffed because he thought that his song was too serious to be made fun of. And there were a couple years there where there was, you know, I guess you could say, some bad blood. But Coolio, thankfully, in time, decided that the song was actually pretty funny and that he overreacted. And he wound up being fine with it. And it was water under the bridge for many years.

SIMON: You have, in real life, as opposed to anything we see on screen here - you really have sold millions and millions of albums. You've won five Grammy Awards. You have six platinum records. How the hell did that happen?

YANKOVIC: I don't know. This was never supposed to happen. You know, novelty act, you know, musical comedy - like, you know, that's the domain of one-hit wonders, historically. So the big irony of my life is that I've now had this, like, 40-plus-year career doing this stupid music. And most of the serious artists that I parodied along the way are now not so much in the public eye.

SIMON: Oh, my word. And I have read, contrary maybe to expectation, you are actually very devoted to your family and even religious.

YANKOVIC: Yeah, that's all true. It's - you know, I had a religious upbringing, and I'm very devoted to my family. And, yeah, I mean, that's one of the reasons, I suppose, why my material is somewhat family-friendly. I mean, it goes to some pretty dark places, but I don't use profanity in - you know, in my own life or...

SIMON: Yeah.

YANKOVIC: ...In any of my material. And that's just because that was the way I was brought up. That was the way I was raised. And, you know, that just continues to this day.

SIMON: I'm sorry for using the H-word. Forgive me.

YANKOVIC: (Laughter).

SIMON: I mean, I usually don't have to apologize to nuns when I interview them if I refer to that.

YANKOVIC: (Laughter).

SIMON: But to Weird Al, I have to. As we say here at NPR, all jokes considered. Is there a lesson in this film about being what some people consider weird?

YANKOVIC: Yeah. I mean, it's obviously not a message movie. It's a comedy. And the main goal is for people to laugh and have a good time. But, you know, if you want to glean a message, Daniel Radcliffe, as me, does a speech at the end at a big music awards show. He encourages people to be as weird as they want to be. And he says that you will never be truly happy unless you can accept who you actually are. And, you know, that's an important message, and I'm glad that's in the movie. And, I mean, that's sort of the subtext of my life and my career as well.

SIMON: Weird Al Yankovic, he produced and co-wrote the new cinematic classic "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story," now on Roku. Thank you so much for being with us. You know, it's rare we get to talk to a big star like you. Thank you.

YANKOVIC: (Laughter).

SIMON: Thank you.

YANKOVIC: My pleasure.

SIMON: Thank you very much. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A SURGEON")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Like a surgeon, cutting for the very first time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.