With Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, composers Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg left the dojo to score a tonally complex film which required more than a few Polka’s (as you might expect for a film about the famous accordion-parody-artist of all time). Whether it’s “Eat It,” “Amish Paradise,” “Like A Surgeon,” or “Another One Rides The Bus,” one can’t help but appreciate the genius of Al Yankovic of the last four decades.
It’s a daunting task to write music to stand alongside the decades of Yankovic hits that are interspersed throughout the film, but Robinson and Birenberg are accustomed to the pressure of high profile projects.
After seeing a meteoric rise to the cultural conscience with YouTube Red’s “Cobra Kai” (The Karate Kid spinoff), Netflix acquired the series and its already astronomical viewership surged even further.
Instead of resting on their laurels, Robinson and Birenberg expanded the musical palate of the series with bold choices that struck a power chord with fans. The duo are even performing their score to live audiences when they can find time with their busy schedules.
Robinson and Birenberg’s path to scoring Weird is just as weird as wild as you might expect for a Weird Al biopic. The project itself was spawned from a fake trailer by writer/director Eric Appel that appeared on Funny or Die.
A viral response from Appel’s satirical take on the beloved singer’s backstory led to Appel directing the full-length feature film. The script was penned by Appel and Yankovic, with Yankovic being heavily involved in the film and working in conjunction with Robinson and Birenberg.
Awards Focus spoke with Robinson and Birenberg about their fascinating path to scoring Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, creating the accordion-led score in a short four weeks, and what we can expect next from the duo with their new series, “Obliterated.”
Awards Focus: With “Cobra Kai,” you’ve created incredible momentum around showcasing a really diverse sound palate, and a lot of offers are certainly coming in from that. However, it was Leo scoring the series “Big Time in Hollywood Florida” that triggered Weird: The AL Yankovic Story director Eric Appel to reach out. Can you describe how the first email in 2015 led to this project?
Birenberg: This is the perfect Hollywood story to me because it is the only time my website email has ever affected my life in any way, and it was in a massive way. I scored the aforementioned “Big Time,” and absolutely nobody watched it (though I highly recommend readers track it down because it is hysterical), but the one person who DID watch it was Eric. He was working on the pilot for Son of Zorn at the time and straight up cold-emailed me via my website to say he loved the score to Big Time and wanted to see if I’d be interested in doing Zorn. My first big break! But it honestly says a lot about the type of person and director Eric is: he loves finding people who share his vision and enthusiasm and empowering them to be as creative as possible. It’s why all of his projects absolutely slay, and every department head loves working with him.
AF: Zach, how was it for you getting to know Eric as this started rolling ahead?
Robinson: Leo first introduced me to Eric before we were brought on to score Die Hart, which was then produced for Quibi but now has a second life on Roku. Eric is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and truly has such a cinematic eye. Even though “Die Hart” was for a smaller streaming service, Leo and I always talked about how it felt like we were scoring a movie because Eric’s direction was so top-shelf. It was really special that we all got the chance to work on an actual film together a few years later.
AF: How early did you want to start writing music in the process? Were you balancing any other projects at the time Weird went into production?
Robinson: We were sent the script before they started shooting, but because they were on such an accelerated production schedule, they didn’t even have the time to get us started until the cut was basically locked. We were finishing up Cobra Kai season five at the time, and it ended up being perfect timing for scoring Weird.
Birenberg: They shot the movie in eighteen days, and we scored the entire thing in about four weeks! It was a lightning-fast process.
AF: There’s an early 90s feel, which is such a delight for anyone growing up in that time, but the film also has this very specific tone that you’re balancing. The diner fight scene is incredible, but there are also more grounded moments. What instruments, outside the accordion, did you enjoy getting to use that you might not normally use in contemporary?
Robinson: Scoring “Weird” was so much fun for us because of how “simple” the palette was. We’re so used to employing a very maximalist scoring style (look no further than the gargantuan score of Cobra Kai), so it was really nice for us to focus solely on the orchestra and the accordion. Who knows when we’ll be able to write a score like that again!
Birenberg: The core emotional arc of the film is always in that 90s “great American hero” world, but as the plot spirals into a progressively more delightfully unhinged territory, there are a few other fun, exaggerated genre nods: apocalyptic choir for the LSD sequence, a piano concerto for Al and Madonna’s introduction, fiddle for the Amish animation sequence. We had so much fun.
AF: Can you talk about some of the modifications and distortions you put on the instruments, specifically the process of getting a John Wick-style accordion sound?
Robinson: We had our accordion player Cory Pesaturo come to the studio, and he has an electric pick-up in his accordion. So we plugged the accordion into a guitar amp, smashed some distortion on it, and voila, we had our diner fight sound. It was surprising to us how much a distorted accordion can sound like a guitar!
Birenberg: Hopefully, the next John Wick movie will take place in an underground polka palace, and we can share our secret sauce with them.
AF: How did the two of you balance notes from Eric and, of course, Al, as they’re both incredibly involved in this process and music is at the forefront of every frame of the film?
Robinson: The awesome thing about this project was that everyone was truly on the same page in terms of the direction and vision of the score for the film.
Eric and Al’s feedback was incredibly valuable and helped hone our sound of the score immensely. Al is very knowledgeable about polkas, which, admittedly, Leo and I do not know a lot about, so when we were producing the polkas you hear at the polka party, Al imparted a lot of knowledge about form, style, etc.
Birenberg: Yes, to use every studio exec’s favorite buzzword, there was a lot of “alignment” on the vision here. The process was fun too! Al was actually on tour during post, so we would go to meetings at the cutting room, and he would be on Zoom and then suddenly say, “Gotta go, guys! Time to place my show.” He’d disappear for two hours and then pop right back on like he wasn’t a giant rockstar who just played a concert in between.
AF: Can you talk about the division of the workload on the film and when you feel that a cue is ready for the other to hear? I’d also love to know the first thing you scored for the film that really energized Al and Eric and one cue that you kept revisiting up to picture lock.
Birenberg: We operate on an enthusiasm-above-all system, so if someone has an idea for a scene, they are welcome to dive in first. After spotting, each of us usually has a few spots we are especially excited about, so we start with those and honestly spend all day on Facetime just going through music. There’s no big internal presentation– we are talking about the cues all day, every day, and sharing material back and forth constantly.
Robinson: The first scene we scored was actually the last scene in the movie: Al’s speech. We wrote what would be our main theme there, and we felt it would be the perfect first cue to show Eric.
When we showed it to him, it was a pretty immediate approval, and we had totally hit the nail on the head for Eric, so we just began to propagate the theme everywhere we could, and the score started to quickly come together.
The scene with Dr. Demento meeting Al surprisingly took a lot of revisions, I think because that was one of the few places where we had trouble nailing down the tone of the scene. We had scored a few versions that were playing the comedy, but what ended up being there was a very sincere, emotional cue, which of course, makes the scene that much funnier!
AF: What has the reception been like for you following the release of the film on Roku and now entering Emmy season with so much love for Weird?
Robinson: We always knew the film was special, but I think what really excited us was how people found a way to watch the movie. We’re no strangers to scoring things on hard-to-access streaming services, but to Roku’s amazing credit, they really figured it all out.
Birenberg: It’s been wild watching this film barnstorm its way through awards season with so much success. It’s always amazing when people connect with something you poured so much work into. I think it is extra special since so much of what makes the movie work is nailing the tone, and the score was central to that.
AF: What’s the remainder of 2023 looking like for you both? What can we look forward to hearing and seeing?
Robinson: We scored Peacock’s upcoming Twisted Metal series based on the video game franchise, which comes out July 27th. It’s a really wild score.
Birenberg: We can’t give a lot of details, but we have another new series called “Obliterated” for Netflix created by the brains behind “Cobra Kai.” If y’all think our scores are usually bombastic, you might need to get some new speakers ready for this one. We’re insanely excited about it.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is available to stream on Roku.