The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

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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.

-Brandon Ledet