Weird: The Al Yankovic Story's Zach Robinson And Leo Birenberg On Composing For The Accordion [Exclusive Interview]

The conceit of Eric Appel's "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" is that it is, in itself, a parody of Hollywood biopics. It starts with a few real-life facts from the life of "Weird Al" Yankovic — the world's premiere accordion-playing pop song satirist and legitimate comedy god — but then begins to extrapolate an exaggerated, highly fictionalized version of them. As the film progresses, the actual facts begin to recede and the whoppers increase. By the end, Yankovic (Daniel Radcliffe) has had a torrid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) and ... well, it's better not to reveal some of the film's funnier gags. 

In order to sell the film as a parody, it had to be delivered with a straight face. There could be no winking or joshing around from the cast. The sillier moments had to be presented in complete earnestness, or else the joke would not work. The bulk of that straight-faced tone fell to Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson, the film's composers. Could writing music that was on earnestness overdrive help "Weird" sell its comedy? Birenberg and Robinson recently talked with /Film about their approach to "Weird," their familiarity with "Weird Al" Yankovic, and the difficulty of composing for an accordion. 

'This is like the great American hero'

This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity. It contains spoilers for the movie.

I understand that the mandate for a film like this is that it's a parody, and the parody is only going to work if everything is really straight-faced. And it's going to be most straight-faced in the music. It has to be really, really earnest. So I know you're not taking a lot of comedy music cues. You're probably taking cues from other more earnest places. Can you talk a little bit about what your inspiration was in that regard?

Robinson: That's a great question.

Birenberg: Yeah, it truly is, because it kind of gets to the entire heart of the story, the literal heart of it. There's nothing funny, quote unquote, about the music itself. It's all about how it's used. And the prompts that we discussed with Eric [Appel] beforehand, was basically that this is the story of a "great American hero," and we need to score it in the way that classic films of that genre, like "Forrest Gump" or ... I don't know, like – 

Robinson: "Rudy."

Birenberg: "Rudy!" "Rudy." This is like the great American hero who also connects to you as the everyman, and his problems are just more exaggerated versions of your problems. You just have to cut through all the heightened bulls*** and score the heart of that story and tell that story, and all the comedy aspects of the movie exist parallel to that. Playing it straight is central to that, to the comedy playing at all.

'Oh, you can laugh at this'

I was especially fond of the fake montage of "real-life" pictures at the end. That's when you two really got to shine. Apart from "Rudy" and "Forrest Gump," were there any cute or funny cues or references you snuck in that we might not have recognized?

Robinson: It's funny because there's certain sequences and set pieces ... like the diner fight, for example. We were like, "Okay. We want this to be a 'John Wick'-like cue." So we're going to go outside of our score zone for that and score it like a "John Wick" scene.

I'm thinking about also Al and Madonna, when we first meet them, and it is this beautiful — Leo could probably describe it a little bit better than me, but a romantic piano piece that evolves. It's just such a nice piece of music. [laughs] I always listen to it, and I'm like, "What?" This is just hilarious to me that this is just in a score.

But it's funny that you mentioned the credits, because when we first did the credits, they hadn't put all the fake pictures of Al in. They were just normal pictures. So we actually kind of played it a little more ... I guess I would say that the way that you hear it now, which is a very sad, like "in memoriam" version — very sad, it's just cello and piano — actually is more true to the sound of the score than what our first version was, which kind of broke that seal of, "Hey, this is a comedy." Our first version was kind of like, "Oh, you can laugh at this, ha ha ha." 

Birenburg: Or like, "Here's the friends we made along the way."

Robinson: But then once the pictures went in of Al at the Illuminati holiday party and him with Madonna and everything, it was like, "Oh, okay, we have to stay in. We have to still be..." This is like he died. You can't disrespect.

'We picked what we thought was the right genre and then leaned into it as extreme as possible'

Because "Weird Al" has parodied almost every genre of pop music, he and his band have to become experts in various musical disciplines. It seems that, given the wild genre-shifting nature of "Weird," this is something you also had to do. Did you have to educate yourselves in new genres of music writing?

Birenberg: I wouldn't say so much that we educated ourselves specifically for this project, but one thing that Zach and I, we kind of think of as one of our calling cards, is we are really good at a broad array of genres. We really like to take projects that kind of take us all over the genre map and lean really hard into it. So then when you have a project like this where, yes, the main spine of the score is this kind of earnest, "great American hero" story, but there's so much heightened reality that, as you pointed out, builds up throughout the movie, once you get into the second half of the film, you need this sort of like, "Well, what is this hell opening up, LSD drug sequence going to be? And what is this diner fight against all these insane goons who are coming from everywhere? And what does this storming the Columbian compound look like? And what [does] Al and Madonna having sex all over the house sound like?" And in each case, we picked what we thought was the right genre and then leaned into it as extreme as possible to really hit the heightened elements of it.

'We didn't really structure it in a way where there's a spot where you're supposed to pause and laugh'

Robinson: And it always comes from a sincere place. We are always fans of that style of music. We listen to a lot of music. We're fans of a lot of styles of music. And so when we get tasked [with an assignment], we're so excited to do it.

Birenberg: And I would say there's a big difference between making a parody of "John Wick" for an action sequence and just writing a piece of music that would sincerely be in "John Wick." There's a big difference for the way it plays to the audience, and we did the second one. 

Robinson: Yeah, except "John Wick" didn't have an –

Birenberg: Accordion solo.

What would you say is the vital technical difference between writing a dramatic score and writing a comedy "parody" score?

Birenberg: When you're doing parody, you almost "cue" the audience where to laugh a little bit. So the way you'll structure a specific build or a specific hit will be designed to tee up a punchline that exists in the on-camera work. And when you just play it straight, you're still hitting things and still building, but you're doing it in a way that you want the audience to be like, "Yeah, I'm in it. This is a sweet action movie." That's the difference.

It's kind of where you design these punchlines, and in this case, there aren't that many "punchlines" in this diner action sequence, for example. It's really just choreographed like an action sequence and therefore, we didn't really structure it in a way where there's a spot where you're supposed to pause and laugh. And I would say the parody version is that.

'Our kind of wink and nod is that we incorporated accordion into the orchestral score'

Robinson: And to piggyback off that, there were some scenes ... emotional scenes — there were certain scenes, I'm thinking of, actually, when Dr. Demento and Al first meet. We had done a version of that score that had comedy cues. There's a lot of starts and stops, which kind of, as Leo said, tell the viewer when to laugh, essentially.

And what is in there now is actually a very sincere, emotional piece of music that has a little bit more of hope and uplifting feeling to it. Our first pass was nothing like it. And it was kind of a goofy comedy cue that played kind of the weirdness of Demento, but it didn't play the sincerity and the emotion that Eric wanted. We did that kind of early on, and then we didn't make that judgment again. For now on in the movie, we always decided to approach those scenes as a very sincere, as if you were watching an early '90s Zemeckis movie. That was kind of the way to do it.

I was listening very, very closely for "sincere" renditions of "Weird Al's" actual music throughout, or other comedy music cues. Are there maudlin versions of any of Al's songs on the score? Or other Dr. Demento hits like, say, "Dead Puppies?"

Birenberg: No. In this, we wanted to keep it as straight as possible in that regard. Our kind of "wink and nod" is that we incorporated accordion into the orchestral score ... In some action sequences, like that diner fight Zach mentioned, [we had] an accordion at the same time ... [when we have] heroic or wistful melodies throughout the score, we have orchestra all around it, but then you'll hear accordion. It's also the first thing you hear in the movie over the opening title card — or not the title card, but the intro into that first scene. You hear accordion playing with the orchestra. That's kind of our — you know, it's a "Weird Al" movie, of course there's going to be accordion.

Robinson: And we don't add accordion until after he gets the accordion. So the early part of the movie, it's no accordion. It's awesome. Instead of an oboe solo or a violin solo, we'll have an accordion solo. That was fun. I'll shout-out our amazing accordion player, Cory Pesaturo, who's a world champion accordion player. He's literally the world champion. He's obviously a fan of Al — I think all accordionists are.

'Al was very particular about the polkas'

I'd love to meet the one outlier accordion player who hates "Weird Al."

Birenberg: What's going on in that guy's head?

Now that you've written for accordion, is it an instrument you'd like to keep composing for in the future?

Birenberg: Oh yeah. Well, once you know a world champion accordion player, then you can't help but call them up.

Robinson: You got to use him. It's an incredibly difficult instrument.

Birenberg: It's way beyond me.

Robinson: Very, very hard, very hard. It was cool to learn more about it. Al was very particular about the polkas. We learned a lot about polka in this movie, and we, between Cory and Al, learned about the different styles, the different sounds, literally the sounds of the different genres. Mexican accordion has different timbres than accordion polka or European accordion, and it was cool to learn all that stuff. It's a great instrument.

'That's just insanely difficult'

What is it about an accordion that makes it difficult to compose for?

Birenberg: So it's kind of like a piano, basically. So on one hand you have a piano keyboard, and on the other hand you have like 60 buttons ... that make no sense to anybody else. And all those buttons play different chords, so that you're playing individual notes on this side and chords on this side. You have to know a piano aspect of it, work your way around the accordion aspect of it, and put them together all while constantly bellowing. Because that's what makes the sound, is the air being pushed out through these reeds that are in it ... your brain needs to be doing these three totally independent things and putting them together to execute the music. And that's just insanely difficult.

How familiar were you with "Weird Al" and his music prior to this project? 

Robinson: He was my first concert ever. My first concert. At the Greek Theatre. "Running With Scissors" Tour, so I don't know, '98? And it was at the Greek Theatre in L.A. I mean, it's funny because I think everyone grew up with a different "Weird Al" album, and for me it was "Running With Scissors," but for a lot of other people, it's different. And even if, I don't know, you were born 20 years ago, he still has albums that you probably grew up with that are newer because his albums still do really well.

I've only seen "UHF" once, but it was the kind of thing as I was getting into Al when I was younger, I watched it. But yeah, I mean it was — he's, like, the nicest person ever. And for someone who is truly an American hero — I know we were joking about it — but there really is nobody else that I can think of that everyone, across any political spectrum, any age, even if you don't listen to "Weird Al," everybody respects "Weird Al."

"Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" is now streaming on Roku.