Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night is one of the most influential movies of all time, pioneering a genre out of Beatlemania and inventing the language that has proliferated in music videos over the last 50 years. However, most modern music acts don’t go down the Hard Day’s Night/Spice World route in their cinematic tie-ins and concert documentaries (in 3D!) are more common than narrative features.
If we had to bet on any modern music act reviving the band movie as the Beatles had it, it would be the comedy group The Lonely Island, who first came to prominence through Saturday Night Live‘s Digital Shorts and have released a catalogue of catchy numbers with hilarious music videos. But for Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, it would have been almost too easy to loosely string together a number of their videos in a feature and it’s to their credit that their second big screen effort, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is a perfectly silly parody of the kind of stage-managed documentaries that represent the genre at present.
The trio play the Style Boyz, a boy band who had a couple of big hits in the 2000s but fell apart after lead singer Conner (Samberg) went solo, fell out with his lyricist Lawrence (Schaffer) and relegated Owen (Taccone) to being his DJ. As Conner4Real, his meteoric success is defined by his all too personal relationship with his fans, or Connfidants, who hang on his every bowel movement via Instagram.
The film charts the tumultuous release of his second album, Connquest, which is made up entirely of tracks that Conner wrote himself. It’s the most anticipated album of the year, but it meets with very poor sales and a frosty critical reception – out of four stars, Rolling Stone awards it one shit emoji. Taking this to heart, Conner promotes his world tour with a number of flashy gimmicks and PR moves at the behest of his manager (Tim Meadows) and publicist (Sarah Silverman), as he and his entourage try to avoid an increasingly absurd spiral into obscurity.
This Is Spinal Tap is typically the go-to for reviewers aiming to make a comedy about music look inadequate by comparison to Rob Reiner’s classic, but a much fairer and more relevant touchstone for Popstar is the criminally underrated Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story.
It has the mockumentary angle in common with Spinal Tap, but Popstar and Walk Hard share a producer in Judd Apatow, a scene-stealing turn by Tim Meadows, and at least two Beatles, (guess which ones!) Alas, Conner4Real also shares something of Dewey Cox’s box office reception, which makes it the second half of the funniest double bill you’ve never heard of before. It also picks up at around the same time in history that Dewey Cox left off, in a music industry where artists’ image and reputation perhaps outweighs their artistic credibility.
From the title down, Popstar mostly takes aim at the success of Justin Bieber, exaggerating his love affair with his Beliebers and, more specifically, a notably bad PR episode at the Anne Frank house in order to lampoon the cult of celebrity and sycophancy around modern artists, complete with real talking heads Simon Cowell and 50 Cent to lend gravitas to its mock tactics. Silverman’s aloof publicity manager sums it up best – “Conner’s music may not be what I listen to in my free time, but it seems to make so many people money.”
They’re just two of the guests that The Lonely Island have roped in from their evidently extensive contact list, in one of the year’s biggest cameopaloozas. You might have to be up on your music to recognise all of them, but there are surprising and welcome turns all the way through from SNL alums and former hosts alike. But quite rightly, it’s Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer who carry the movie.
Samberg’s rubber faced swagger ports perfectly from the music videos to the big screen, giving Conner equal amounts of bravado and vulnerability and constantly taking it out on the characters around him. Taccone and Schaffer share directing duties, but also make great comic foils – put-upon DJ Owen, whom Conner sees as the McCartney to his Kanye, and bitter ‘Kid Brain’ Lawrence, who has retired to a farm where he works with wood and dodges bird crap. As mentioned, Meadows also excels as the group’s manager, himself a jilted member of a band who is quotably anxious about the gravy train going off the rails.
But as you’d expect from a movie by these three, the songs are the main draw here. The cleanest track I’m So Humble has featured in most of the marketing, but in keeping with their back catalogue, the soundtrack thoroughly earns its Parental Advisory Explicit Content warning.
There are such gloriously profane tracks as Equal Rights, in which Conner insists that he’s not gay more often than the title would suggest, Mona Lisa, about “an overrated piece of shit” painting that he saw once, and Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song), a perversely catchy number in which the assassination of Osama Bin Laden becomes a metaphor for sex. There are featured artists old and new and hilarious lyrics throughout, making the OST album an essential purchase to find out the stuff that they couldn’t fit into the film.
Even outside of the songs, the film is really funny and observes the mockumentary tropes well enough to make them hysterical. For instance, one of the funniest action set pieces in any film this year takes place completely in the dark, after the cameramen respectfully turn the cameras away from a personal conversation that unexpectedly turns into an epic battle, with only sound and subtitles telling the story. It’s not quite as surreal or as immediately lovable as Hot Rod, their first, non-musical film, but it certainly follows in its genre-busting footsteps.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a spiritual successor to Walk Hard, a film that didn’t do well in cinemas but fundamentally changed the genre it lampooned. In a roundabout way, The Lonely Island might give us our Hard Day’s Night yet, having roasted the premature pop documentary so thoroughly as to give pause to any real artists with a lack of ambition on the cinematic side of things. The good news is that, unlike Conner4Real, its success doesn’t hinge on sales and acclaim, and this one’s going to appreciate in value over time. It’s destined to be watched, enjoyed and guffawed at many, many times.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is in UK cinemas now.
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