Review: ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,’ starring Daniel Radcliffe

November 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Spencer Treat Clark, Tommy O’Brien, Daniel Radcliffe and Rainn Wilson in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”

Directed by Eric Appel

Culture Representation: Taking place from the late 1960s to 1985, mostly in California, the comedy film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nerdy misfit Al Yankovic becomes world-famous for his parodies of pop music hits, but his fame, an inflated ego and an ill-fated romance with Madonna cause problems in his life. 

Culture Audience: “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” will appeal primarily to fans of “Weird Al” Yankovic, star Daniel Radcliffe and movies that spoof celebrity biopics.

Evan Rachel Wood and Daniel Radcliffe in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” isn’t a straightforward biopic but it’s more like a biopic parody, which is fitting, considering the movie is about music parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic. Daniel Radcliffe fully commits to an off-the-wall performance as Yankovic. Some parts of the movie get distracted by trying to be too bizarre, but this well-cast movie overall can bring plenty of laughs. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Eric Appel (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Yankovic), “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” even has a parody biopic voiceover, with Diedrich Bader as an unseen and unidentified narrator saying things in a deep voice and overly serious tone. The movie has the expected childhood flashbacks, which are moderately amusing. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t really pick up steam until it gets to depicting the adult Yankovic. (For the purposes of this review, the real Yankovic will be referred to by his last name, while the Al Yankovic character in the movie will be referred to as Al.)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” begins in the mid-1980s, by showing the adult Al in his 20s (played by Radcliffe) being rushed into a hospital emergency room, where he is attended to by a doctor (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The voiceover narrator says solemnly: “Life is like a parody of your favorite song. Just when you think you know all the words … surprise! You don’t know anything.” Why is Al in a hospital emergency room? The movie circles back to this scene later, to explain why.

After this scene in the hospital emergency room, the movie flashes back to Al’s childhood with Al (played by Richard Aaron Anderson), at about 9 or 10 years old, who considered himself to be a misfit in his own household. Born in 1959, Al grew up as an only child in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, California. Al’s cranky father Nick (played by Toby Huss) works in a factory, and he expects Al to also become a factory worker when Al is an adult. Al’s loving mother Mary (played by Julianne Nicholson) is somewhat supportive of Al’s artistic interests, but she lives in fear of Nick, who has a nasty temper.

Nick openly mocks Al’s dreams to be a songwriter. One day during a meal at the family’s dining room table, Al’s parents listen to Al change the words of the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” to “Amazing Grapes.” Nick is infuriated and says that this song parody is “blasphemy.” Mary tells Al that he should stop being himself. Feeling misunderstood, Al takes comfort in listening to his favorite radio shows, including those by his idol Dr. Demento.

Something happens that changes the course of Al’s life: An accordion salesman (played by Thomas Lennon) comes knocking on the Yankovic family’s door. Nick isn’t home at the time, but Al and Mary are there. Al is immediately dazzled by the accordion for sale, which is actually not shiny and new, but rather previously owned and worn-out. Al feels an instant connection to the music that comes out of this unusual instrument.

Al begs his mother to buy the accordion for him. Mary usually goes along with whatever Nick wants. (Nick wants Al to give up any dreams of being a musician.) But this time, Mary goes against what her husband wishes, and she secretly buys the accordion for Al. However, Mary has a condition for buying this accordion: Al must hide the accordion and only play the accordion when Nick isn’t there. Al agrees to this rule and becomes a skilled accordion player.

As a teenager, Al (played by David Bloom) is considered nerdy but likeable. His outlook on life begins to change when he plays the accordion at a house party full of kids from his high school. The response he gets is enthusiastic and full of praise. It’s the first time that Al feels outside validation for his accordion playing, and it gives him the confidence to decide that he will definitely be a musician and songwriter. Things turn sour at home though, when Nick finds out about the accordion and destroys it in a fit of anger.

After graduating from high school, Al moves to Los Angeles, where he lives with three guys who are close to his age: Jim (played by Jack Lancaster), Steve (played by Spencer Treat Clark) and Bermuda (played by Tommy O’Brien), whose interests are mainly dating women and partying. Al’s roommates encourage him to pursue his dreams, even though Al is constantly being rejected when he auditions for rock bands that have no interest in having an accordion player. (The movie has some comedic montages of these rejections.)

Al’s roommates aren’t fully aware of his talent for parodies until Al does an impromptu parody of The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona” and turns it into his parody song “My Balogna” when he looks at some bologna in the kitchen. The roommates are so impressed that they volunteer to be his band members and encourage Al to make a recording demo that he can send to record companies, with the hope that he can get a record deal.

Al’s demo tape finds its way to brothers Tony Scotti (played by the real Yankovic) and Ben Scotti (played by Will Forte), who own Scotti Bros. Records. Tony and younger brother Ben (who are portrayed as shallow and mean-spirited music executives) are very dismissive of Al at first and don’t think a song like “My Balogna” could be a hit. Even though “My Balogna” has been getting some local radio airplay (including be a big hit on Southern California radio’s “The Captain Buffoon Show”), Tony and his “yes man” brother Ben don’t think there’s demand on a national level for albums from an accordion-playing, parody singer/songwriter.

But then, Al meets his idol Doctor Demento (played by Rainn Wilson, in perfect casting), who thinks Al is very talented and offers to become Al’s mentor. Dr. Demento suggests that Al change his stage name to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Al gets live performance gigs, sometimes as the opening act for Dr. Demento in the early 1980s.

Al also does a recording called “I Love Rocky Road” (referring to Rocky Road ice cream), a parody of “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” a song originally recorded by The Arrows in 1976, and was made into a chart-topping hit by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981. “I Love Rocky Road” gets some airplay on local radio (including Dr. Demento’s show), and it becomes a popular song requested by audiences. Suddenly, the Scotti Brothers are interested in signing Al to their record label.

One of the best scenes in the movie is early in Al’s career, before he was famous, when he’s invited to a house party at Dr. Demento’s place. The party guests are a “who’s who” of eccentric celebrities, including Andy Warhol (played by Conan O’Brien), Alice Cooper (played by Akiva Schaffer), Salvador Dalí (played by Emo Phillips), Divine (played by Nina West), Tiny Tim (played by Demetri Martin), Gallagher (played by Paul F. Tompkins) and Pee Wee Herman (played by Jorma Taccone). Observant viewers will also notice uncredited actors portraying Elvira, Frank Zappa and Grace Jones at the party.

At this party, radio/TV personality Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black, in a hilarious cameo) is skeptical of Al’s talent, and he tries to humiliate Al, by challenging Al to do an impromptu parody of Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust.” Queen bassist John Deacon (played by David Dastmalchian), who wrote “Another One Bites the Dust,” is also at the party and wants to see how this aspiring artist will rework one of Queen’s biggest hits. Al rises to the challenge and comes up with the parody “Another One Rides the Bus,” which tells comedic tale about the frustrations of riding a bus. Al the earns the respect of Wolfman Jack, Deacon and other skeptics at the party. Other well-known comedians who make cameos in the movie include Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey, Patton Oswalt as an unnamed heckler, Michael McKean as a nightclub emcee, Arturo Castro as Pablo Escobar and Seth Green as a radio DJ.

The rest of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a wild and wacky ride that shows Al’s ascent in the music business, but he succumbs to some of the pitfalls of fame. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” adds a lot of fiction about Yankovic’s life when the movie starts going into its more unusual tangents. For example, in real life, Yankovic had one of his biggest hits in 1984 with “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But the movie puts a cheeky and offbeat twist on this part of Yankovic’s personal history, by making Al as the one to write the song first, and Michael Jackson “copied” the song by recording “Beat It,” without giving Al any songwriting credit.

Al’s dysfunctional romance with Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is also fabricated for the movie. (In real life, Yankovic says that he and Madonna never knew each other at all.) In the movie, Madonna and Al first meet sometime in 1983, when he’s a bigger star than she is, because she recently signed a deal to release her first album. Madonna is portrayed as an ambitious manipulator who had her sights set on Al after she found out that sales increase significantly for artists whose songs are parodied by Al.

Madonna and Al immediately begin a hot-and-heavy affair based mostly on lust. Madonna encourages Al to start abusing alcohol and acting like a difficult rock star. Al starts to alienate his bandmates/friends when he does things like show up late for rehearsals and act like an insufferable egomaniac. Madonna knows it’s easier to manipulate Al when he’s drunk, so she keeps him supplied with enough alcoholic drinks to keep him intoxicated.

It’s all part of Madonna’s plan to get Al to do a parody of one of her songs, so that her music sales can increase. (ln real life, Yankovic’s 1986 song “Like a Surgeon” was a parody of Madonna’s 1984 hit “Like a Virgin.”) But what Madonna, the Scotti Brothers and many other people didn’t expect was Al deciding that he was going to stop doing parodies and release an album of his own original songs. Al makes this decision after he accidentally takes LSD given to him by Dr. Demento, and Al has an epiphany that he has more to say to the world as a writer of his own original songs.

The movie has several moments that parody how superficial the entertainment industry can be, with the Madonna character being an obvious example of a showbiz leech. The Scotti Brothers characters are the epitome of greedy and fickle music executives who think they always know more than the artists signed to their record label. Al is portrayed as someone who enjoys his fame but also feels overwhelmed by it.

Even when with his fame and fortune, Al still craves the approval of his parents, who don’t really express that they are proud of him. At the height of Al’s success, he remained somewhat estranged from his parents. It’s a bittersweet part of the story that gives some emotional gravitas to this otherwise intentionally zany movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a scene in the movie where Al, who has won Grammys and is a headliner of sold-out arena shows, calls his mother Mary to tell her about some of his accomplishments, but her response is the equivalent of someone saying, “That’s nice, dear,” and not being very interested.

Radcliffe (who is much shorter in height than the real Yankovic) makes up for not having a physical resemblance to Yankovic by bringing his own character interpretation of the real person. It’s not an impersonation but more like a re-imagining of what Yankovic is in this often-fabricated cinematic version of his life. Wood also turns in a memorable performance as Madonna, which might remind people more of Madonna’s chewing-gum-smacking movie character Susan from 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” than the real Madonna.

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the music. The movie has some entertaining concert scenes and gives some insight into Yankovic’s songwriting and recording experiences. If the movie has any flaws, it’s the Madonna storyline, which becomes a one-note joke and drags on for a little too long. And because the movie ends in 1985, it doesn’t include Yankovic’s post-1985 forays into starring in movies and TV shows, directing music videos for other artists, and becoming a children’s book author. However, the movie cheats a little in the timeline, because it includes Yankovic’s 1996 song “Amish Paradise,” which is a parody of Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

The last scene of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” might be a little too abrupt or off-putting for some viewers. But it’s an example of how this movie doesn’t want to be a conventional biopic. Yankovic’s original song “Now You Know,” which was recorded for the movie and plays during the end credits, makes a lot of meta references to the movie that are an example of this comedy film’s quirky tone. Even with all the oddball antics in the movie, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” succeeds in its message that good things can happen to people who aren’t afraid to be themselves.

The Roku Channel will premiere “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Playing God’ (2021), starring Hannah Kasulka, Luke Benward, Jude Demorest, Alan Tudyk and Michael McKean

August 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Luke Benward, Michael McKean and Hannah Kasulka in “Playing God” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Playing God” (2021)

Directed by Scott Brignac

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed U.S. city, the dark comedy “Playing God” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sister and a brother, who work together as con artists, enlist an elderly male ex-con friend to pretend to be God, in order to rob a billionaire who’s seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Culture Audience: “Playing God” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a far-fetched and not-very-funny comedic heist movie.

Alan Tudyk in “Playing God” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Playing God” is one in a long list of movies that would have been much better if the concept had been made into a short film instead of a feature-length film. The very flimsy premise of “Playing God” is bloated into 95 minutes of tedious and uninspired repetition, with dull acting and empty characters. It’s ironic that this vapid comedy, which tries to use spirituality as a punchline, actually has no soul.

It’s a story about a brother/sister duo of con artists who decide to pull off their biggest scam by fooling a spiritually troubled billionaire into thinking that he’s interacting with a physical embodiment of God. (The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, but “Playing God” was actually filmed in the Houston area.) The reason why these grifter siblings need the money is because they’re heavily in debt to a local gangster. Yawn.

Written and directed by Scott Brignac, “Playing God” is the type of movie that people will forget not long after watching it. Fans of actor Michael McKean will be disappointed that this is the low-quality junk he’s been doing lately, considering his masterful comedic work in the classic 1984 mockumentary “The Is Spinal Tap,” as well as in movies directed by his “This Is Spinal Tap” co-star Christopher Guest. Even the work that McKean did in the goofy sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” is better than the banal stupidity of “Playing God.”

McKean portrays Frank, an ex-con pal of the sibling scammers who recruit Frank to impersonate a physical manifestation of God to a gullible billionaire whom all three of them plan to rob. Before the movie even gets to this scheme, it wastes a lot of screen time (approximately 20 minutes of the movie’s beginning) showing some other scams perpetrated by Rachel (played by Hannah Kasulka) and her older brother Micah (played by Luke Benward), who are both in their mid-20s. Rachel and Micah also live together.

In one of the con games, blonde Rachel (wearing a black wig as a disguise) pretends to be a guitarist who plays for money on the street. When a male passerby in a business suit gives her more than the usual pocket change, the scam gets put into motion. Rachel follows this donor and stops him to thank him for his generosity. While they are talking, another man comes out of hiding and steals the guitar.

Rachel and the Good Samaritan give chase, but the thief is too fast for them. The businessman feels sympathy for Rachel and gives her a wad of cash to buy a new guitar. When Rachel goes home and takes off her disguise, viewers see that the guitar is safe and sound. The “thief” was really Micah.

That kind of scam is a one-off deal where they can’t fool the same people again, and there’s no guarantee of how much cash they can get from unsuspecting strangers. Rachel and Micah have another con game, which is more long-term and more consistent on how much money they can con out of people. It’s a scam that’s much more heinous because Rachel and Micah have befriended the people whom they’re cheating.

Micah and Rachel have become close to a married musician couple named June (played by Jude Demorest) and Owen (played by Leighton B. Allen), who are both in a band together. June is pregnant and due to give birth any day now to her and Owen’s first child. It’s not really made clear in the movie how long Micah and Rachel have been cheating June and Owen out of their money. However, it’s been long enough where June and Owen expect Rachel to stop by their place on a regular basis to collect June and Owen’s donations for poor orphans in other countries.

Rachel pretends that she’s a representative of a charity for orphans, but the charity and orphans actually don’t exist. She goes as far as showing June and Owen photos of kids that she says are the orphans, but it’s all a lie. It’s mentioned in the movie that Rachel met June and Owen through the local music scene. Rachel really does play guitar and would like to be a professional singer/musician, but she and Micah have been swindling people as a way to make money instead of an honest living.

How did Micah and Rachel end up this way? “Playing God” is so sloppily written, that this question is never answered. There’s a vague backstory about how Micah and Rachel were abandoned by their father at a very young age, when Rachel was 2 and Micah was about 3 or 4 years old. Four years later, their mother died of a drug overdose by pills. Rachel was the one who found her mother on their bathroom floor. And so, Rachel and Micah ended up in foster care.

However, the movie never explains how and why Rachel and Micah went from being in foster care as children to becoming con artists as adults. Maybe that’s because the filmmakers know that this movie’s main characters are so shallow and not very likable, viewers won’t care much about the backgrounds of these characters. Micah is the bossy leader of this criminal duo.

Micah is also very irresponsible and selfish. Rachel finds out the hard way, when she and Micah are kidnapped by a local gangster named Vaughn (played by Marc Menchaca) and some of Vaughn’s thugs. While Rachel and Micah are tied to chairs that are facing each other in a warehouse-looking room, Vaughn demands the $200,000 that he says Micah and Rachel owe to Vaughn. It’s news to Rachel, who apparently was unaware that this debt was not paid.

However, Micah confesses to Rachel that instead of paying off their debt to Vaughn, he “lost” the money instead. Micah doesn’t go into details, but viewers can speculate. Considering that they’ve been kidnapped over it, you’d think that Rachel would want to know how Micah lost the money, but she doesn’t ask. That’s how bad this movie’s screenplay is.

Vaughn and his thugs start to torture Micah by making him wear headphones so that they can turn on the volume so loud, it will permanently damage his eardrums. Just as the thugs are about to do the same to Rachel, Micah breaks down and promises Vaughn that he and Rachel can get the money to them in 10 days. And so begins the “race against time” that’s more sluggish than it needs to be in this movie.

Micah comes up with the idea to scam a famous billionaire to get the money. The target is Ben (played by Alan Tudyk), a lonely widower who is in his 50s. Ben founded a tech company and got rich when he sold the company for about $500 million with stock options. He’s been retired ever since. Ben has been in depressive emotional state, ever since his wife and daughter (who was about 12 or 13 years old) died in a car accident several years earlier, after he retired.

To cope with his grief, Ben has been on a quest to “find God” and get more spiritual enlightenment. He goes on expensive retreats to remote places to take psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca. (The movie’s opening scene briefly shows him on one such trip, where he vomits soon after ingesting an unnamed liquid psychedelic.) Ben is also known to seek advice from high-priced “spiritual gurus,” many of whom are probably con artists.

Ben’s tendency to pay people for spiritual advice is the main reason why Micah and Rachel think that Ben will be an easy mark. The siblings decide to pay an unannounced visit to Ben at his mansion. Micah and Rachel dress in identical white pant suits and pose as religious associates named Clint Chambers and Samantha Crowley.

When they get to Ben’s mansion, they see that he has been working on a strange-looking structure that can best be described as having tin spirals that give the entire structure the shape of a large Christmas tree. This structure is not a tree house, but someone can climb into it. It’s an eyesore that’s placed right in the middle of front lawn.

It looks like someone’s idea of an invention that can send signals to outer space. The only purpose of having this ramshackle-looking invention in the movie is to show that Ben is mentally unbalanced in some way. He’s been working on this tin structure as if he thinks he’s a NASA genius.

As soon as Ben sees Micah and Rachel dressed in their white suits, Ben figures that these two strangers are from some kind of religious group, and they want money from him. He’s right about the money part. Rachel/Samantha tells Ben, “We’d like to discuss the incident that happened at St. Teresa.” She introduces herself and Micah under their fake names.

Ben seems embarrassed when he replies, “I already apologized to Father Paul.” Don’t expect the movie to explain what this incident was that resulted in Ben having to give an apology to a clergyperson. Viewers won’t find out. Instead, Ben invites Micah/Clint and Rachel/Samantha inside for a brief conversation. Ben hastily gives them $20,000 in cash to make them go away.

Rachel thinks that’s the end of the con and is happy to take the money. But Micah has other ideas. He figures that if Ben was so quick to give up that cash, then Ben has a lot more cash in the house that can be swindled or stolen. Micah declines to take the cash and tells Ben, “God doesn’t want your money.”

Shortly after that, Micah and Rachel leave. At first, Rachel is furious that they didn’t take the $20,000. But when Micah explains that he has an idea where they can get the $200,000 and possibly an even higher amount so that that they can keep the extra cash for themselves, Rachel somewhat reluctantly goes along with the plan. Micah says it was important to fool Ben into thinking that they’re not after his money, so he’ll let his guard down when they go back to him to start the scam that Micah has in mind.

Micah’s plan is to go back to Ben in the near future with someone who’s impersonating God. Somehow, Micah and Rachel are supposed to convince Ben that he’s talking to God, so Ben might give up secrets about where he keeps the pile of cash that they’re sure is in his mansion. Ben’s conversations with “God” are also supposed to be a distraction for Micah and Rachel to sneak into Ben’s mansion to steal the money.

Anyone who thinks this is a good idea for a movie or for a scam in real life is hallucinating more than Ben after taking ayahuasca. But here is this moronic idea that’s the basis for this unimaginative slog of a movie. There are so many things that aren’t considered that could go wrong that the movie expects viewers to overlook, such as: What if it takes longer than 10 days to get the information? What if Ben demands proof from the phony God that the phony God can’t deliver? What if viewers actually thought about what a dumb idea this is for a movie?

The next step for Micah and Rachel is to find their phony God. They go to a roller skating rink (yes, you read that right) to visit their old pal Frank, a fellow con artist who spent time in prison for his crimes. After getting out of prison, Frank has been trying to lead a “straight-laced” lifestyle as the owner of this roller skating rink, where he is also the DJ. The movie gives a vague mention that the siblings met Frank through a past con job.

Frank immediately turns down their offer, because he says he’s a reformed con artist and doesn’t want to get involved in anything where he could be sent back to prison. However, Rachel correctly predicts that the lure of easy money will be too tempting for Frank to pass up, and he agrees to do the con. Frank wants a cut of the haul, of course, and he thinks it would be better to steal Ben’s famous collection of rare coins and some valuable art that the siblings saw in the mansion, instead of speculating that there will be at least $200,000 in cash conveniently lying around to steal.

The rest of the movie shows what happens when the plan for Frank to play God is set in motion. Ben is skeptical at first that Frank is God, but Frank is able to convince Ben that he knows too many private things about Ben. He lists some of these things.

Much to Ben’s surprise, these private facts are correct. They’re things that someone would know if they had secret surveillance of Ben in his home. There’s no explanation for how the surveillance was secretly put in Ben’s home—it’s an example of this idiotic film’s many plotholes.

One of Ben’s first meetings with “God” takes places on a hotel rooftop, where Ben threatens to jump off of the roof shortly after talking to “God.” Ben tells “God” to prove that he’s “God” by stopping Ben from jumping. It’s really the movie’s tacky way of making suicide attempts look like a gimmicky joke.

Skilled con artist Frank is able to prevent Ben from jumping, by using reverse pyschology in telling Ben to go ahead and jump because God can’t control if people feel suicidal or not. The tactic works, and Ben doesn’t jump, since it’s obvious he just wants attention and not to commit suicide. Ben’s banter with “God” is often prickly and argumentative, because Ben blames God for the death of Ben’s wife and daughter.

There are more scenes of Frank “proving” that he’s God to Ben. And there are more scenes of Rachel visiting June and Owen. These scenes are just time-wasting filler until the movie finally gets to the actual heist. “Playing God” goes even more downhill from there.

A major secret is revealed (it’s not too surprising), which is supposed to add emotional gravitas to this con game. It doesn’t, because in order for this secret to be believable, a lot of people would need to have amnesia about names and identities. It’s just a lazy plot twist added to an already silly movie.

None of the actors does anything special. McKean, the most well-known of the cast members, seems to be just going through the motions. He clearly did not choose to do the movie because it has a good screenplay. It’s all just a waste of McKean’s talent.

Frank is supposed to be the most interesting character in the movie (considering he’s put to the task of convincing someone that he’s God), but Frank is as bland as bland can be. There are some hints that Frank has a fascinating backstory. At one point, Frank tells Micah and Rachel that he went to Catholic school for 10 years, but he got ex-communicated from the Catholic Church at age 15.

This personal anecdote could just be a con man telling another lie, but what if it were really true? What did Frank do to get ex-communicated from the Catholic Church as an underage teen? The movie never answers those questions because it’s not interested in presenting anything intriguing about these characters. The only reason why Frank’s Catholic school background seems to have been mentioned is because it’s supposed to make him “qualified” to know about God and Christianity.

All of the cast members are very mediocre with their acting, mostly because their characters are so poorly developed. And the same could be said of Micah and Rachel’s con schemes. These dimwitted siblings do such a terrible job of conceiving their tricks and not covering their tracks, viewers will feel like Micah and Rachel should’ve been caught and imprisoned a long time ago.

“Playing God” could have had some clever commentary on the dangers of following “false idols,” but it’s all overlooked because of some ridiculously half-baked ideas that made their way into this movie. People who are religious or spiritual won’t be offended that the movie is about someone impersonating God. What will offend people is if they’re conned into paying money or wasting their time to watch this clumsily made nonsense.

Vertical Entertainment released “Playing God” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 6, 2021.

Spinal Tap and director Rob Reiner reunite to celebrate the 35th anniversary of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

The 1984 comedy film “This Is Spinal Tap” will probably go down in film history as the most influential mockumentary of all time. The movie, directed by Rob Reiner and mostly improvised by the cast, is a mock documentary of a fictional British heavy-metal band called Spinal Tap, as the band goes through the humiliation of a career downward spiral. Spinal Tap’s core members are egotistical lead singer/rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins (played by Michael McKean), simple-minded lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) and laid-back bass player Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer). The band is rounded out by an ever-changing lineup of keyboard players and drummers. There’s a running joke in the movie that Spinal Tap drummers often meet an unfortunate demise.

“This Is Spinal Tap” takes place mostly during the band’s disastrous tour of the United States, where the band’s current album (“Smell the Glove”) is a flop, and Spinal Tap performs to increasingly smaller audiences. There’s also in-fighting because of ego clashes between David and Nigel. Feuds between a band’s lead singer and guitarist have happened so many times to famous bands, it’s become a cliché at this point. The movie also pokes fun at other clichés in the music industry, such as over-the-top machismo in heavy metal; embarrassing on-stage mishaps; smarmy hangers-on; incompetent handlers; a meddling girlfriend who thinks she’s almost a member of the band; and sparsely attended gigs in weird places. In the movie, Reiner plays fictional director Marty DiBergi, who is chronicling the Spinal Tap tour for a documentary.

When “This Is Spinal Tap” was first released, it was so convincing, that some audience members thought that Spinal Tap was a real band, and some real-life rock bands were offended, because they thought that the movie was making fun of their real-life experiences. McKean, Guest and Shearer can sing, play musical instruments and write songs in real life, and they’ve occasionally released albums and toured as Spinal Tap over the years. At the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, in celebration of the 35th anniversary of “This Is Spinal Tap,” a rare reunion took place with Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer, who gathered at New York City’s Beacon Theatre for a conversation and Q&A, before the Spinal Tap trio did an acoustic performance. (Elvis Costello made a surprise guest appearance during the song “Gimme Some Money.”) Here is what the “Spinal Tap” team said during the conversation and Q&A, which was moderated by Reiner.

Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Guest: I hadn’t seen [“This Is Spinal Tap”] in a while. It’s interesting to see yourself younger. What do you think?

McKean: [He says to the audience] Your reactions were like concert reactions, which were great. You’d see a scene beginning, and it was like hearing the beginning of “Free Bird.”

Shearer: I have to say, I was taken back in a time machine when I saw the scene with Paul Shaffer [who portrayed record promoter Artie Fufkin, who asks the band to “kick his ass” when there’s a low turnout for a Spinal Tap meet-and-greet at a music store]. It brought me back to a moment Michael and I and an ex-partner were in a comedy group called the Credibility Gap. We were in Arizona doing a gig, and everything that could be fucked up about our technical set-up was.

The representative from Warner Bros Records—a guy named Lou Dennis—came backstage, and we were furious. This was a record merchandising convention, and this was a chance for people in the business to become acquainted with an act they didn’t care about. Lou Dennis, before we could say one word to vent our anger, said, “Guys, kick my ass!” He became known as Lou “Kick My Ass” Dennis for years afterward. We put that in the movie, and for years afterwards, he would say, “I’m the guy in ‘Spinal Tap!’”

McKean: The other problem was that conventioneers started drinking at about 9:30 in the morning. And this was more like 9 p.m. when we went on. It got worse. Tucson, Arizona.

Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: It’s crazy, 35 years. It’s insane when you think about it. They put us in the National Film Registry and the Smithsonian. It was so crazy. The first time we screened the film at a screening in Dallas, people were coming up to us and saying, “Why would you make a movie about a band that’s no one’s ever heard of and one that’s so bad?”

McKean: Some of the cards that we got from the audiences from test screenings were amazing. In answer to the question, “What did you like about this film?,” one woman wrote, “DNA.”  “How would you describe this film?” And we figured out that “DNA” meant “Does Not Apply.”

Guest: Michael and I were in Dallas to get some popcorn, and there were two young women who came out in the middle of the movie, and one of them said to the other one, “These guys are so stupid!”

McKean: Well, they were right.

Guest: And one of the cards said, “What did you like about it?” And the person who wrote it said, “It’s in color.”

McKean: It’s not a good jumping-off point.

Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: I’d forget that Dana Carvey is in [the movie]. There’s Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Fred Willard. Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, played by Patrick Macnee. The whole film is improvised, except for that one speech by Patrick Macnee said about, “Tap into America.” He said, “I don’t improvise,” so we sat down and wrote it. It’s the only written thing in the whole movie.

We had Peter Smokler was the DP [ director of photography] on the film. We hired him because he shot lots of rock’n’roll documentaries. We thought he would be the perfect guy. He was actually at Altamont, with the very famous Rolling Stones concert with the Hell’s Angels, a very said time. And we were going through this, and he kept saying to me “I don’t understand what’s funny about this. This is exactly what they do.”

Shearer: This was probably a trait that served Peter well—not seeing what was funny about what we were shooting—because before he came on our project, he had shot another documentary called “This Time, It’s for the Championship.” There was a gentleman in the 1970s named Werner Erhard, who ran an organization called Est. And everybody’s agent went to Est.

And with all the money that his customers had given him, Werner Erhard decided to become a championship car racer and commissioned a documentary about it. So it would’ve been a bad idea for Peter to have said [about “This Is Spinal Tap”], “You know what? This is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.”

Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: I never heard that story. There was a life to the band. They had their own life and their own history. We spent a lot of time talking about the characters. Everybody had their own frame of reference. And so, there was an organic creation.

We had some people come in to audition. John Densmore, the drummer for the Doors, auditioned. He was great, but he’s in the Doors. It’s not this alternative world that we created. Paul Stanley from Kiss came in.

Guest: Nicky Hopkins, a great keyboard player.

Reiner: If you look carefully in the “(Listen to the) Flower People” [music video], you’ll see Russ Kunkel, who was a great drummer who played for Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. And Danny Kortchmar was in “Gimme Some Money.”

McKean: And Ed Begley Jr. was the drummer [in an early lineup of Spinal Tap, in the “Gimme Some Money” clip].

At this point, questions were taken from the audience.

Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Was the band Spinal Tap based on Iron Maiden?

Guest: It was never based on any particular band. The rhythm of the name Spinal Tap was like Uriah Heep or others with that rhythm. We picked and chose from various places.

Reiner: Life and art kept mirroring each other. That scene backstage where [Nigel Tufnel] is trying to get the sandwich to fit on the bread—that was taken from an article in Rolling Stone called “The Endless Party,” about Van Halen, and how they wanted all the brown M&Ms removed from backstage.

The keyboard player we had—a guy named John Sinclair—was in a 20-minute demo version of the film. And when we were ready to shoot the film, he got a job with Uriah Heep, and he figured, “This is a real band. I’m not going to go with these [Spinal Tap] schmucks. I’m going to get real money.” And when he came back from the Uriah Heep tour, he tells us how they got booked into an Army base. [In the movie, Spinal Tap performs at an Army base to a bewildered, straightlaced audience.]

Shearer: And just before we started shooting, I had the opportunity to be in England. I don’t even know how I wrangled this, but I got to go on the road with this mid-level band that most Americans never heard of, nor had I at the time, this English heartthrob band called Saxon. I picked up little details, like the bass player figured that that they were playing in E and A on all the songs, so he could play basically open strings, and he never had to finger it.

Reiner: There was life imitating art, back and forth. My favorite thing was we had this idea for Stonehenge. Black Sabbath decided they were going to tour with a Stonehenge theme. The movie came out about a week after they went on tour, and they were furious with us. They thought we stole the idea. It takes more than a week to make a film and distribute it.

Harry Shearer (pictured at left) in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Why was the cucumber wrapped in tinfoil? [In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Derek Smalls sets off a metal detector at an airport checkpoint, and to his embarrassment, an airport security employee discovers that it’s because Derek has a phallic-shaped vegetable, wrapped in tinfoil, stuffed in his trousers.]

Shearer: The real answer is—and someone might check this after the show to see if I’m right—if you slip a cucumber, or as I did [in the movie], a zucchini, in your trousers, and you get up on stage, and sweat for two hours, you’ll be glad it’s wrapped in tinfoil.

Since the members of Spinal Tap are American in real life, how did you get those English accents down so well?

Reiner: Chris’ father was British.

McKean: We spent a lot of time echoing what Chris was like, because he was on the money all the time.

Reiner: Chris’ father was in the House of Lords, and when he passed away, [the title] was handed down to Chris. Chris became a member of the House of Lords. Did you pass any significant legislation?

Guest: I was the one who said you didn’t have to wrap anything in tinfoil. It didn’t go anywhere.

Reiner: Why did they kick you out, by the way?

Guest: I’ll tell you later.

Michael McKean, June Chadwick and Harry Shearer in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

What was with scene where the band members have cold sores?

Reiner: That was the remnant of a joke that took about a half-an-hour of film to set up. At one time, the opening act was a punk band called The Dose, which was fronted by Cherie Currie, who was in The Runaways. And at one point, she is with Nigel, and they’re having a little fling, and in the next scene, you see that Nigel’s got a little herpes sore. And then, she’s hanging out with David, and then he has a herpes sore. And then she’s with Derek, and then Derek has a herpes sore.

And there’s a scene with the five band members sitting around, thinking about dropping The Dose from the tour. There are four guys with herpes sores, and the drummer doesn’t have a herpes sore, and he’s saying, “Why don’t we keep them? I like them!” That was the whole set-up and we ended up with two guys with herpes sores [in the final cut].

What was your favorite scene that didn’t get in the final cut of the movie?

Shearer: Bruno Kirby singing. It’s on the DVD extras. He’s at a party with us. It’s late in the evening. Weed and other things have been ingested. And he’s stripped down to his skivvies, and singing Frank Sinatra into what he thinks is a microphone, but it’s actually a slice of pizza.

McKean: And then he goes out like a light. Oh man, it was so good. I understand why they cut it. There was a touring company of “The Wiz,” and we shot a scene where there were two extremely flamboyant black dancers. And they just give us the eye, and our reactions got a little big, I think, so we cut that. [That scene] made me laugh.

Reiner: The first cut [of “This Is Spinal Tap”] was about seven hours. There were about three hours of interview footage. It was like making a documentary. It was like writing a movie with the pieces of film.

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

Here is the set list from the Spinal Tap 35th anniversary reunion:

Celtic Blues

Hell Hole

(Listen to the) Flower People

Rainy Day Sun

Clam Caravan

All the Way Home

Big Bottom

Gimme Some Money (with Elvis Costello)

Sex Farm

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Elvis Costello and Christopher Guest at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix