Monday, May 21st, 2018
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POPSTAR: A Brilliant Comedy That’s Ahead Of Its Time

You will see the term postmodern to describe the comedy of The Lonely Island, the comedy team responsible for this film and the birth of the Saturday Night Live Digital Short, as you read opinions on their newest film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It is a vague term that means comedy that deconstructs the art and is self-aware.

POPSTAR: A Brilliant Comedy That's Ahead Of Its Time

You will see the term postmodern to describe the comedy of The Lonely Island, the comedy team responsible for this film and the birth of the Saturday Night Live Digital Short, as you read opinions on their newest film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It is a vague term that means comedy that deconstructs the art and is self-aware.

This can range from an Albert Brooks ventriloquist act that is funny because it is terrible to the philosophical cynicism of Rick and Morty (as well as pretty much every other original program aired on Adult Swim). The Lonely Island is a little bit different, in that their postmodern comedy is fun. It is a tremendous show, but you don’t end an episode of Rick and Morty with a brighter outlook on the world.

In fact, it is generally the exact opposite. But in Popstar, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer manage to poke fun at the likes of Justin Bieber, Macklemore, Tyler, The Creator, and U2 while also providing a raw sense of comedic joy. It is an incredible blend of smart and goofy. The film is never too clever for its own good nor is it too goofy to be dismissed as juvenile.

Popstar is not for everyone, getting a little bit specific with its references to modern hip-hop and inoffensive offensiveness, but those who keep up with hip-hop and are in sync with the always shifting curve of modern comedy will have their gut-busted with laughter over the course of the film’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 84-minute run time. Films like Popstar will only get better with age, as we realize the members of this comedy troupe were ahead of their time.

The Plot

In Popstar, Andy Samberg plays the heartthrob musical artist Conner4Real (think Justin Bieber if he was awkwardly too old to be fawned over by teenage girls). Conner is a megastar who branched off from his former boyband, The Style Boyz, a boy band sensation that consisted of Conner and his two best childhood friends, Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer).

POPSTAR: A Brilliant Comedy That's Ahead Of Its Time

source: Universal Pictures

Owen has sold out and become Conner’s DJ, which consists of pressing play and pause on an old-school iPod, and Lawrence has resigned to a rural ranch, bitter about Conner refusing to give him credit for his success. The mockumentary follows Conner and his cohorts as Conner releases his new album, Connquest (the much anticipated follow-up to Conner’s smash hit album, Thriller, Also).

The album is lambasted by critics and Conner’s life begins to spiral out of control. His tour isn’t selling out and his agent (played masterfully by Tim Meadows) decides he needs to book shock-rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) to get the tour back in the public consciousness. The film quickly morphs from a Never Say Never-style self-indulgent documentary to a cautionary tale of succumbing to fame and surrounding oneself with gold-digging friends.

Scatter-brained but next-level hilarious

The plot will not blow you away and the film is scatter-brained early on, surely a result of The Lonely Island’s incredible success with Digital Shorts during their tenure at SNL. The film is next-level hilarious, but the script lacks a sense of structure that separates a feature-length film from a short film.

Jorma Taccone’s directorial debut was 2010’s MacGruber, a masterfully-crafted comedy with specific sensibilities and a plot that built on itself. Jokes set up early on paid off later, which is something that Popstar fails to do. That said, the individual sequences reach levels of hilarity that only the greatest comedies have been able to achieve.

POPSTAR: A Brilliant Comedy That's Ahead Of Its Time

source: Universal Pictures

For instance, there is no reason for the existence of a Bill Hader roadie character whose primary hobby is “flatlining”, where the slacker slows his heartbeat down to the point of imminent death before being shocked back to life by defibrillators, but it results in a great visual and ideological gag that garners laughs at an alarmingly efficient rate. Hader is in the film for a total of one minute and 45 seconds of that time produces a laugh. There is a never-ending wave of celebrity cameos, but almost all of them work (however, I truly believe that DJ Khaled lacks the ability to act like a normal human being for longer than three seconds).

A Personal Chord

The first two acts throw jokes at a feverish pace. Not all of them hit, but they work a vast majority of the time. With so many jokes, it would be impossible for all of them to be perfect. The macro-jokes, the bigger digs at modern bands, Conner’s relationship with his pet turtle, and his gang of ridiculous yes men are phenomenal, even if the micro-jokes within them have a few missteps.

After these acts, the film even manages to show a bit of heart. Somehow, it works. The Style Boyz are reunited and put on a comeback performance at the biggest awards show of the year. It is sweet because the members of The Lonely Island genuinely care about each other. They have been friends and collaborators for years upon years.

Just as in the film, Andy Samberg has emerged as the biggest star, followed by Taccone, and then Schaffer. It can be easy to get lost in the fame, and sometimes you need be reminded of the people that got you up the mountain in the first place. Samberg will continue to get the public credit for the success of The Lonely Island, but the behind-the-scenes work of Taccone and Schaffer is invaluable.

At its face, this film is a dumb summer comedy, but it is also therapeutic for the actors involved. It strikes a personal chord that nearly every comedy fails to strike. Popstar has ambitions beyond gags and jokes.

The Music

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the musical existence of The Lonely Island is that their music is actually very good. I’m not talking about good in the sense of fun or funny. The film’s four albums (including the soundtrack for Popstar) have high production value and feature many of the most prominent musicians working today.

It is one thing to get Michael Bolton to wisely make fun of himself in a harmless song about Jack Sparrow, but it is another to get Kendrick Lamar to rap about the dangerous principles of YOLO, T-Pain to talk about having sex with his aunt (fictitiously, of course—as far as I know), and get Beck to co-write a song called “Attracted to Us” where the gang talks about how appealing they are to White girls, Asian girls, Space girls, In-Your-Face girls, and many others.

Unsurprisingly, Popstar’s songs are the most satisfying parts of the film. Several of the songs are performed in their entirety, either “in concert” or via music video. The sad, but understandable, fact is that the soundtrack for Popstar isn’t as funny as any of The Lonely Island’s previous albums, but that is like comparing Michael Jordan and LeBron James. You absolutely cannot go wrong.

POPSTAR: A Brilliant Comedy That's Ahead Of Its Time

source: Universal Pictures

Popstar has to establish context for its songs, which The Lonely Island’s past albums did not have to do. However, the new songs are utterly hilarious. These are the best and smartest spoof songs in a film since This Is Spinal Tap, the most obvious comparison to this film, because of both its comedy genius and rockumentary style.

The film features commentary on the pseudo-progressive messages of many artists (they’re looking at you, Macklemore, and this song is the most scathing burn of the bunch), pervasive media (hello, U2), catchphrase rap (sorry, just about every rapper climbing the pop stars), and dark, incongruous rap (no one could be blamed for mistaking one of Popstar’s Hunter the Hungry’s songs for a real Tyler, the Creator track).

There is a hint of reverence in some of these parodies, and never too much bite. Making art is hard, and The Lonely Island seems to know this, even if some of it becomes low-hanging fruit ripe for jokes. The film is all about fun. There is never a sense of superiority presented by the writers/actors/directors.

Conclusion

Popstar is a tremendous achievement in modern comedy. As moviegoers lag behind, the film will gain admiration in the years to come. The film manages to poke fun while still being fun. It never takes itself too seriously or acts as if it is above the current state of commercial music.

The music of The Lonely Island continues to be great, with great writing and high production value. And underneath it all, it a sneakily touching story where art imitates life. Don’t miss out on this smart, hilarious film. It may not be for everyone, but everyone should give it a chance.

What did you think of the film? Why did it bomb? Was it ahead of its time or just a niche product?

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was released in the US on June 3; it lands in the UK on August 26. Find international release dates here.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Jay is just a dude who takes in an unhealthy amount of media of all types. Currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, he firmly believes that all movie theaters should have leather recliners, you eat popcorn too loudly, and if you don't put that cellphone away in 2 seconds you will learn the definition of frontier justice.

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