Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson are award-winning composers (and self-professed Buffalo Bills fans) best known for their work work on the Netflix series Cobra Kai. The duo was recently nominated for an Emmy for Original Dramatic Score for their work on The Roku Channel’s comedy biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as the famed parody musician. The film has earned eight Emmy nods in total, including Outstanding Television Movie, Lead Actor (Daniel Radcliffe), Writing, Original Music and Lyrics (“Now You Know”), Casting, Picture Editing, and Sound Mixing.
We spoke to Birenberg and Robinson about working with Weird Al Yankovic, maintaining the dramatic tone of the film, and challenges of composing for the accordion.
Can you talk about your personal histories with Weird Al prior to working on the film? Were you fans?
Leo Birenberg: I mean, who isn’t? I think one thing that is kind of amazing about this project, that we knew going into it, is that there is a constant reminder that Al is a beloved American musical figure. Four different generations have different relationships with Weird Al. There was a different album or a different tour or a different song when they in their prime Weird Al age that spoke to them. So he’s like this great nexus point for for everybody to get along. Personally, I was into Weird Al when I was in seventh grade at the height of Napster, and Limewire. I would just download Weird Al songs and play them with my friends.
Zach Robinson: “Running with Scissors” was my album; my first intro to to Al. My first concert ever was at the Greek theatre for that tour in 1999 or 2000. He’s just been a part of so many people’s lives and he’s been around for so long. We were just recording a musician the other day who had the Dr. Demento. album that had the original recording of “My Bologna.” He’s older than us, but Al has been in his life since he was a teenager, so it was very cool to see that.
How did you guys board the project? I imagine it’s kind of a dream project for you.
Leo Birenberg: Totally. We know the director [Eric Appel ] pretty well. I’ve known him for years, and Zach and I have worked with him on a couple of projects in the last few years. So, he called us pretty much as soon as the movie was green-lit and said, “Hey, guys, remember that Weird Al thing I’ve been talking about? We’re actually making it now. I want you guys on board.” Then he sent us the script so that we can kind of start getting in the zone. I’m sure you can imagine having seen this movie that the script is bonkers, but we could just tell from reading it that it was going to be an amazing musical opportunity all across the board.
Listening back to the score, you guys keep it pretty straightforward. It’s pretty dramatic. If I didn’t know I was listening to a Weird Al parody film soundtrack, I would never would never guessed. Is that the key to writing a parody film score?
Zach Robinson: I think Al would agree with that statement. I think that is the key, and I think that was the guiding light for Eric and Al as well when giving us direction on the score. We all very quickly got on the same page and had decided that the score to this movie needed to be a score that you would hear in an early 90s film, like Forrest Gump or Rudy, or something like that; the great American hero score.
So, what’s really awesome about is that is exactly what you said, which is the the score is the straight man the entire movie. So, like the most ridiculous thing can be happening on screen, but if the score plays it sincerely and straight with drama, it makes it just that much funnier. We had a few times where we scored scenes with maybe a little too much of a hint of comedy or self awareness, and we would get the note from Eric or Al that said, like, “This needs to be needs to be dramatic,” and it was that much funnier. So, it is really interesting how score can like invert your expectations that way.
I think something too overdramatic would have had the same effect.
Zach Robinson: I think so too. It’s a fine balance, for sure. I think what we found was that we’re just fans of this type of music. It’s similar to what we do on Cobra Kai, which has a similar tilt in the sense that ridiculous things happening on screen, but we score with drama and sincerity. It all comes from a place of love and respect. I think that’s how we walk that tightrope. Credit to Eric and Al….
Leo Birenberg: …and Daniel for setting this amazing tone in his performance, which is so hilarious, but it’s also deadpan and serious, which gives you room for the score to then help the audience buy in and go on the journey. You’re not laughing at the movie. You’re laughing along with the movie.
You mentioned “Rudy” and “Forrest Gump.” Were there any other musical cues that you were referencing, or at least hinting at, throughout the course of the film?
Leo Birenberg: We were going for a 90s, Thomas Newman vibe, like a Shawshank Redemption sort of thing. There’s this whole era of film music that Zach and I grew up with specifically in the 90s, and they just don’t make film scores like that anymore. They sound kind of dated and hokey. But everybody who loves movies loves them You just don’t get that many opportunities to write something like that anymore. Like most people will tell you like, “Oh, this is this sounds too dated,” but here was our chance to really channel the year 1993 and go so hard in that direction.
I primarily write for a living, so I listen to film scores when I write…
Leo Birenberg: Awesome.
….and those that era is what comes up on my Spotify.
Leo Birenberg: It’s like the golden era.
Zach Robinson: It’s fun for the audience to hear that type of score. We’ve had the privilege to watch this in a theater a few times with a live audience. The first time was when it played in Toronto and at the opening of Midnight Madness at the Toronto Film Festival. The first time you hear this score in its glory is after Al’s Mom finds the Hawaiian shirt behind the bed, and she pulls in, she looks behind her, and then it cuts to black and ‘Weird’ slow fades up, and the string swell. There is always uproarious laughter because we like when you hear that score, you know the tone of this movie immediately. It gives everyone permission to just be like, “Oh, this is going to be an amazing ride.” So, I’ve always had a soft spot for that moment.
So how challenging was it to write for an accordion?
Leo Birenberg: It is a very difficult instrument. It’s also very heavy so neither of us will ever learn to play it because it is so unwieldy. Our solution was not to do any specific accordion writing ourselves. We use the accordion in a few different ways in this film, and all of it is played by this guy named Cory Pesaturo, who is the world champion accordion player. He’s amazing.
The first way we would incorporate accordion into the score is we would take this standard orchestral vibe that we are describing and we would swap out an element, like the oboe or a high string figure quietly in the background, and we would instead trade it for accordion. So, there’s just our normal 90s orchestral score with like DNA of accordion all over the place.
Way number two, which I think is probably the most fun for us, is really epitomized in a cue called “Diner Fight,” in which Al goes like full John Wick on these bad guys in a diner, and it turns into this insane action score. We are really familiar with writing that kind of really hyper contemporary, super rhythmic action music, and a lot of times it is guitar based. So, we took all of the components that would normally be played on guitar, and instead did them with an accordion running through a guitar amp. Then there’s also a more standard accordion solo in the middle of the fight that really stands out. It’s something that fans are always coming up to us and saying, “I heard the accordion in that scene.” So, to us that was like the apex creatively of the accordion in the film.
Then the third accordion use is when teen Al goes to this Polka party where the bad kids are spinning and polka, so we produced those polka tracks for the film, and Corey played them. The thing that’s really funny about that is like we did the arrangements, and it’s the thing that Al had the most notes on. He really knows polka because he’s such a good accordion player. So, then we’d like revise them to make sure it was up to Al’s polka specifications.
You mentioned Al’s input. How was he to work with? Was he hands on with the rest of the score or did he let you be? How was he as a collaborator?
Zach Robinson: He was awesome. Yeah, he definitely gave us direction on some of the score stuff, but was really encouraging. He and Eric were always on the same page. They were just great collaborators. It could have been easy for a musician as big as Al to come in an be really hands on with a score, but he was incredibly respectful of what we were brought in to do and was encouraging. It was such a fruitful collaboration. Really just like a dream collaboration, honestly. I hope we got to do it again.
Speaking of collaborations, a duo a composing duo is fairly unique. Can you just talk about your writing process together?
Leo Birenberg: Yeah, I don’t know why it’s so unique, because I think what Zach and I have learned is that we creatively get a lot of fulfillment out of this. We met when we were in our 20s working at another composer studio and we were spending so much time like working on the same music together every day and we’re like, “Hey, we’re pretty good at this. We should do this more often.” So, at some point a few years later, like a job opportunity came up that felt like it was just like a good fit for us to collab on, so we did and we haven’t really looked back. We’re always working on something together, the year round, and it makes you think about music differently when you’re co-writing with somebody than when you’re just alone in your room writing by yourself.
Just having someone who you can vocally problem solve with all day, makes us both so creative. We’ll be on the phone talking about a scene, and the act of that discussion will suddenly give one of us an epiphany. We operate in what we call a high enthusiasm environment where whoever has an initial idea for something, we’ll just start working on that, and then once it’s in a spot to be shared, then we’ll just start trading files and adding to each other’s stuff and giving feedback. It’s a really great system and I’m really grateful for it.
Well, guys, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. Congratulations on the Emmy nomination and all your success, and go Bills!
Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson: Go Bills!
(Editor’s Note: J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets)
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”is currently streaming on The Roku Channel.