Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is doing dismal numbers at the box office right now, but so did the cult classic comedy it most closely resembles: Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story. The Judd Apatow-penned John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard applied ZAZ-style spoofery to the musician’s biopic genre and wound up covering the entire history of rock & roll from its blues origins to its Vegas crooner swan song. Popstar picks up exactly where Walk Hard leaves off, mixing ZAZ spoofery with a Spinal Tap documentary format to skewer the modern state of pop music as it has developed since Walk Hard‘s release nearly a decade ago. It’s a shame both of these films failed to make waves financially (Popstar‘s seemingly complete lack of advertising couldn’t have helped there), but they do promise to hold onto a more significant longevity among their respective comedy nerd fandoms. Case in point, just look to the other The Lonely Island film that failed at the box office & found a second life among dedicated fans, Hot Rod. Popstar is just as funny as Hot Rod & just as primed for repetitive viewings, so there’s no doubt in my mind it’ll get the same cult comedy treatment as that militantly goofy title in the long run.
The really interesting thing about that lack of immediate financial success, though, is the way it plays directly into Popstar‘s plot. In the film former SNL player Andy Samberg embodies a versatile stand-in popstar archetype that covers enough ground to resemble any popstar of note you could name from Kanye to Bieber to Skrillex to whoever. Samberg’s titular popstar struggles to repeat past success with a solo record & tour that only do a fraction of the numbers landed on his hit releases. Over the course of the film he learns to put past grudges & current hubris behind him & give the people what they want: a cash-in reunion of the Beastie Boys-esqe pop group that first made him famous. In a lot of ways Popstar itself is Samberg’s way of giving the people what they want. Presuming that Hot Rod didn’t make as much money as it could have because its delightfully moronic daredevil subject matter isn’t exactly what audiences would expect from a The Lonely Island movie, Samberg & company return to their roots here to construct a full-length version of what made their SNL sketches & comedy albums popular decade ago: pop music parody. According to the film’s fantasy version of this well-deserved cash-in, they should be making absurd amounts of money right now, but that’s not exactly how things are working out despite the product being on-point.
Box office numbers & middling reviews aside, Popstar stands as Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date. His deeply silly magnum opus lovingly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop landscape. The film nails the feel of modern pop documentaries in terms of style coopting the on-screen text & social media illustration of titles like Amy along with talking head “interviews” with folks like Nas, Questlove, and Pharrell, the exact kind of contributors you’re likely to see pop up in films like Fresh Dressed. Popstar builds a solid, believable base to hang its gags upon & that in-the-know confidence allows the humor to go as broad or as absurd as it needs to in any particular moment without throwing the audience off track. You’re never entirely shaken by a throwaway gag like a baby playing drums like Neil Peart or an artist responsible for the “brilliance” of catchphrases like “#doinkdedoink” having the self-confidence to declare the Mona Lisa “an overrated piece of shit” because the movie is well-calibrated enough to support those kinds of over-the-top indulgences. The format, the character, his world, and our own pop music terrain all back up each ridiculous gag Samberg throws at the wall, making the film out to be an efficient little comedy machine in comparison to the sprawling, Apatow-dominated landscape comedic cinema’s been exploring to death in recent years. There’s certainly loose improv afoot in Popstar, but it’s arranged & edited into highly functioning efficiency.
I don’t think I’d call Popstar my favorite comedy of the year so far (it’s got the looming presences of Hail, Caesar!, The Mermaid, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, The Nice Guys and The Bronze to deal with there), but I do think it outshines its closest comparison point in recent months: Zoolander 2. My main complaint with Zoolander 2, a movie I quite enjoyed, was that it gets “a little exasperating in its never-ending list of cameos & bit roles […] The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two.” Popstar somehow adopts that exact cameo-saturated format & makes it work like gangbusters. It’s impossible to review this film without name dropping some of the musicians (RZA, Usher, A$AP Rocky, Arcade Fire, etc.) & comedians (Sarah Silverman, Eric Andre, Bill Hader, an actually-utilized Tim Meadows, etc.) involved, but their presence is actually necessary for the format to work instead of being distracting & dilutive the way they were in Stiller’s film.
Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop music’s current state of ridiculousness from EDM DJ laziness to the devastation of a negative Pitchfork review, to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to U2’s invasive album release snafu. Celebrity obsession & absurd acts of cartoonish hubris play right into that surreally vapid world, so Samberg has established a work here where needless cameos & unhinged silliness are a necessity just as much as they’re an indulgence. Long after the lack of critical or box office buzz are forgotten, Popstar might just stand as Samberg’s greatest to work, the most efficient application of his distinct sense of humor put to record.