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HomeComposersEmmy Nominees: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Composers Leo Birenberg, Zach Robinson...

Emmy Nominees: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Composers Leo Birenberg, Zach Robinson on Making Serious Music for Unserious Fare

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Weird Al
Daniel Radcliffe in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Credit: Roku)

Among the seven Emmy nominations received by the faux biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a mention for original dramatic score for composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson. While the film is a farce, it doesn’t always play like one, pretending to be serious and straightforward the whole time, assisted heavily by a decidedly dramatic soundtrack.

Below the Line spoke with this duo about their many years working together and how they often share the same tastes. They cited Cobra Kai as the launch of their particular brand, one which has been described as “batshit crazy,” and emphasize the excitement of getting to do something unique for each project they take on.

In a crowded television season, Birenberg and Robinson also found time to contribute music to Die Hart, Florida Man, and Twisted Metal, and they’ve already boarded the next big show from the Cobra Kai creators, ready to inflict their signature take on the unsuspecting ears of audiences.

Zach Robinson (L), Leo Birenberg (photo by Sam Muller)

Below the Line: What was your childhood relationship, if any, with Weird Al? 

Leo Birenberg: Lots of Napster and Limewire.

Zach Robinson: Tell him what you discovered!

Birenberg: No, I can’t divulge that story. It’s horrifying. No, there is a song that I downloaded on Napster.

Robinson: Off the record, it can be off the record.

Birenberg: Honestly, I can be vague and it can be on the record. There’s a song that I downloaded on Napster. It was a parody song, when I was in seventh grade or sixth grade or something, and I used to listen to it all the time and it was labeled as Weird Al, because it was a parody song. I’ve my entire life thought this song was a Weird Al song and then Al himself told me it wasn’t a Weird Al song.

Robinson: On Instagram Live, yes. And this was after Al had heard in like every interview during the Weird press cycle, because everyone asked us what our favorite Weird Al songs and Leo said, oh, I love “Windows 95,” and he said, Leo, I didn’t write that.

Birenberg: So my entire relationship with Weird Al was a lie, actually. 

BTL: Which is fitting given the nature of this movie, right? 

Birenberg: Yes, honestly, because it turns out it was a lie for everybody. He’s dead. He died in 1984.

Robinson: Every generation has their own Weird Al albums that they connect with, and we were no exception. It’s wild he’s just still so relevant, and everyone loves him, and he just gets new fans every year. There’s just a new cohort of fans that he gets. There’s not many people, musicians, in that capacity who can claim that.

BTL: So how did this job come along? Did you have to play it cool to get it?

Birenberg: We’ve worked with the director before. I’ve known him for many, many years and so he called us and said, hey, remember my Weird Al script? Al and I rewrote it. It’s a go. We’re getting made. Obviously, I want you guys to do it. So was getting the job was actually extremely easy for once.

Daniel Radcliffe in Weird / Roku

BTL: I feel like the bill that you’re trying to fill here is that you’re composing serious music, but it’s going to be used to somewhat humorous effect. Is that how you approached it? 

Birenberg: Yeah, that totally hits the nail on the head. We always say, in this movie, the score is the one element that’s playing it straight, and everything else around it is getting progressively more ridiculous. But the score gives you this very earnest, sincere feeling the entire time that what you’re watching is the true story of a great American hero, and this is his life and the impact that he had on all of our lives. It might as well have been made in the early nineties with the vibe. That was the direction from the very beginning, from Eric, the director, and from Al. We really just took it and ran with it, because you just don’t get to write a score like that all that often.

BTL: Where did you start with it? Were you writing to specific characters besides just Al?

Robinson: We got the script pretty early, so we had read it and the whole time we were reading it, we were just like, what is this movie going to be like? We knew, from the script, there were going to be so many genre jumps in the music, especially later on in the film. The foundation of the music, of the score, our main palette was this early nineties-influenced film score music. Very orchestral Americana a la Forrest Gump, a la Rudy. That type of score, and that was home base. The first thing we wrote was Al’s Speech at the end of the movie, which is the pure form of the theme all the way through. From there, once we got that approved from Al and Eric, we propagated that everywhere and that was a really good foundation from which all the trees grew. Then, from there, everything just started coming together and we had the most fun in respect to the genre jumping, using that theme in different genres and whatnot.

BTL: Do you have a favorite track from the soundtrack? 

Robinson: We have many favorite tracks.

Birenberg: We have a few. Al’s Speech, because it’s just our biggest presentation of the theme. I love the track Dad Apologizes, which is when Al and his dad reconcile, and his dad admits he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt under his factory suit. It’s just the quintessential, giant orchestral swell with a patriotic trumpet solo included.

Robinson: Love that one. The one that I’m really into recently has been Epiphany, which is the epiphany moment the My Bologna moment. It’s a short one, but I know Eric loves that one too, because it really sets the stage for the tone of the movie.

Birenberg: I think the diner fight also seems to be a fan favorite. The fan favorites are Diner Fight and Al and Madonna, I feel like we get asked about them the most. Diner Fight’s awesome because it features accordion, Al’s instrument, and not just as an accordion. It’s also playing the electric guitar role in this giant action queue, giving us some John Wick flavor.

BTL: Was Al involved at all in creating the score?

Birenberg: Yeah, he did not play accordion, but he was part of all the meetings and gave feedback, gave some really good notes about tone in a few spots. He knows a lot about polka, so we did some polkas for the polka party that teen Al goes to and he had a lot of thoughts on those. Our polka knowledge is much higher than it was before.

BTL: Was the experience of working with him surprising at all, or basically what you expected from his reputation? 

Robinson: I was surprised at just how involved he was, I guess, but I didn’t really know what to expect. Looking back on it, it makes total sense. It’s his movie and he cowrote it. He was great. He was awesome. I had heard he’s an amazing guy and he’s a saint. He’s the nicest dude, and passionate.

Birenberg: He’s so nice. He’s so nice.

BTL: This obviously was going to be a fun project, but did you expect it to be so successful and nominated for seven Emmys? 

Robinson: No! No. I just had a feeling that people were going to love it.

Birenberg: There was no question about it being good.

Robinson: It was whether or not the viewership would be there. Roku was a gamble, probably, but Roku was the only one that gave the money to make it, and they showed up and they did an amazing job with producing and promoting it. I knew that when the shots of Daniel Radcliffe came out, they were going to be viral. Al is too well known in this country for this to go under the radar.

Birenberg: It’s such an amazing, A-list cast.

Robinson: Yeah. But in terms of the Emmy stuff, the Emmys is the last stage of just these constant awards, this whole awards circuit, they’ve just been getting so much. So it’s awesome, and we’re stoked to finally be included in that because we’ve just been watching and admiring and cheering on, but we’re very happy.

BTL: You’ve both had a pretty busy year on TV, with Die Hart, Florida Man, and Twisted Metal, which I feel like are all somewhat unified by the fact they don’t narrowly fit any one genre and, like in this case, the music might be queuing you in for something different than what you’re actually watching. 

Birenberg: That’s kind of our brand. We had a music executive recently tell us to “do something batshit crazy like you guys do.” We take that as a badge of honor, and all of those shows are really different and make us tick in different ways. Florida Man is this really cool swamp jazz thing that we would just never have written otherwise. Twisted Metal is this late nineties, early 2000s new metal meets we call it boot gaze, kind of country western.

Robinson: Shoe gaze but country western.

Birenberg: We just enjoy making up new genres, looking at the show and saying, well, what sounds does this inspire? And then how do we then take that and make that our version of it and not just something else. It’s something that I feel like we kind of got a taste of over Cobra Kai, over the seasons of Cobra Kai and figuring out how to interpret every facet of that eighties angle, that love letter to the eighties, what that show and score is. Now, we take that approach to everything we do. It just always involves a different genre on a different path.

BTL: While there are lots of people, myself included, who really enjoy your music, do you find that there’s anybody who’s just really upset by what you’re doing?

Birenberg: Yeah, there was one guy. There was one guy on a forum about film music, not just film music, film music technology, like software. This one dude fucking hates the Cobra Kai score. We just found this randomly and this guy is just so offended that it’s not Bill Conti himself scoring Cobra Kai. It was great, but there were other people on the forum who defended us.

Robinson: That’s a pretty good record, having one person not like us, but I don’t know, maybe other people don’t. But whatever. We’re having fun. We approach these projects with a lot of heart and with a lot of fun, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay.

BTL: That’s fair. This is just you, Leo, but I see that you worked on Bottoms, which I got a chance to see at SXSW and really enjoyed. I’m waiting for the soundtrack release because I really enjoyed the score and I want to listen to it again. It should be out in August, apparently, which was a long time from then.

Birenberg: Yeah. There will be more on that when the movie actually drops. I think the movie comes out on August 25th, so then, there will be a soundtrack.

BTL: I think it fits this brand of yours, a wacky film, but a really, really entertaining one where the music, especially in a theater, really helps to drive it. 

Birenberg: I’m glad that movie is getting a theatrical release, because it’s definitely the kind of movie that you just want to sit there and laugh at the absurdity of it in a theater with other people. It’s so ridiculous. In the best way. I really think it’s funny.

Weird Al
Evan Rachel Wood and Daniel Radcliffe in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Credit: Roku)

BTL: The two of you have an upcoming credit on IMDb. I’m not sure if you can talk about Obliterated?

Birenberg: All we can say is that it’s incredible.

Robinson: Yeah, it is. The creators of Cobra Kai. It’s a new show from them. We are incredibly excited about it.

BTL: You’ve done so much already in your careers. Is there anything that you’re eager to try in the future? 

Birenberg: Film. There’s a big structural difference when you approach a show, even a limited series, something where it’s told over episodes versus a two-hour single movie where you kind of have to say all you have to say. They both have exciting benefits to them. And a show, you get to develop your ideas over such a longer time, and therefore you have creative awakenings that you might not have in a tighter schedule. But then there’s something about just telling one contained story that’s really nice, and I think that’s something we really enjoyed about doing Weird, and I know we would enjoy with other films as well. So I think we’re both interested in doing some movies.

Robinson: I think we’re both really fulfilled. We love the lane that we’re in. We’re just always, as every professional is looking to do, just level up our game. This year’s been great, and we’re hoping that, we’ve still got half a year, and then going into next year, I’m excited to see where we can level up.

BTL: You obviously do some solo stuff, but it’s nice to see you together. How does that end up happening? Do you tend to go in for the same things together, and then sometimes they just take one of you?

Birenberg: I feel like we’re very protective of our joint brand. We’re the fun guys. You hire us because you want a fun score that someone else wouldn’t write kind of thing. When opportunities come up, I think we naturally gravitate towards, hey, let’s do that together, we can crush that. We’ll come up with something that neither of us would come up with separately. And then I guess we’re just not protective about our individual brands.

Robinson: I guess that’s true, yeah. Some of the times, we have a personal connection. It’s mostly that, but yeah, I feel like in the past year, we’ve really been honing in on this brand together. It’s the stuff that we do together that gets the most buzz and things like that. And it gets us the Emmy nomination. We love working together, and it’s nice to have the separate stuff. It’s different brain muscles and creative muscles when you’re working as a team and when you’re not. When we work together, it’s always very easy. We’ve been doing it for so long. We have a very good system.

BTL: Before I let you guys go, you obviously make great music, but what else do you enjoy? Do you have any favorite scores from this past year? 

Birenberg: I hate film music. No, I’m kidding. From this past year, I really liked the score to Past Lives a lot.

Robinson: Yeah, me too.

Birenberg: I was pretty into the Oppenheimer score.

Robinson: Me too. Definitely both of those.

Birenberg: And the Barbie score.

Robinson: Definitely.

Birenberg: Oh! Spider-Verse! Duh. Spider-Verse. I think Spider-Verse is the best movie of the year. Just technically unbelievable. Daniel Pemberton is a friend of ours and I think he does the best work of anybody doing work right now. Just endlessly inventive, and I’m so happy for him with that franchise. I just feel like he has set the bar so high for the rest of us to approach our projects with a fresh ear.

Robinson: I agree with all of that. I would have said all of those. I also feel the same way.

BTL: Well, helping the brand, you’ve got to have the same or similar opinions.

Birenberg: No, we’ve got to fight. It’s all about wrestling.

Weird can be viewed streaming on the Roku Channel.

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Tribeca, and SXSW, and was on a series of road trips across the United States with his wife, Arielle, before they moved to Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Above the Line, Awards Radar, AwardsWatch, Below the Line News, CinemaDailyUS.com, The Film Experience, Film Factual, and Gold Derby.
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