Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping remains one of the best comedy movies of the last decade – and here are a few thoughts on why.
I’ll say it. Popstar is – for me – as good as Spinal Tap. Now, clearly I know that’s a bold claim. There’s a lot of love out there for Rob Reiner’s pitch-perfect comedy, and rightly so. It’s a rare gem of a flick that not only manages to be hilarious for those that get it but also deftly traverses the comedy gap and grabs everyone, music fan or no. And it definitely grabbed me. I mean, I haven’t pronounced the word eleven correctly since the mid-80s. So when I say that Popstar is easily as good, you’ve got to know that I’ve got receipts.
So here goes…
Like Spinal Tap, Popstar also follows the fortunes of a fictional band. In this case, they’re The Style Boyz, a white rap outfit that are inexplicably popular with serious musicians. The story is told through the eyes of Andy Samberg’s Conner4Real, the breakout star of the band, as he launches a dubious solo career. As you’d expect, it’s awful and eventually, the band gets back together. Those, by the way, are not spoilers. Anyone with even a few minutes of movie-watching experience could predict the storyline. The story is not important. It’s the comedy that matters
As Popstar is primarily a music parody, let’s start with a little musical history. Like the guys from Spinal Tap, The Style Boys also consist of real-life musicians who’ve spent a career in parody. In real life, The Style Boys are known as The Lonely Island, a Grammy-winning act who have worked with everyone from Rihanna to Michael Bolton and Natalie Portman. You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a massive fan of their particular brand of parody and not just because it’s funny. It is. But it’s also smart, sharp and at times, better than the music it’s poking fun at. Which is kinda like Spinal Tap.
And just like Christopher Guest et al, The Lonely Island also has a strong non-musical comedy background. Samberg you may well recognise from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Cuckoo and Saturday Night Live. The rest of the band, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer wrote and produced for Saturday Night Live, and, as The Lonely Island, the trio made over 100 skits for the show. One of them went viral and you may well have seen it without realising. Starring alongside Queen Bey herself, Samberg and Justin Timberlake gave a fantastically awkward rendition of Single Ladies, leotard and spike heels included.
Those skits sparked a long-term collab between The Lonely Island and Timberlake that ultimately culminated in Popstar. JT not only suffers an enormous amount of urine extraction as an artist in the movie, he also appears as Conner’s neat-freak personal chef.
So, that’s the pedigree. What about the actual music? In short, it’s fantastic. Kicking off with one of the catchiest, funniest original tunes ever to grace a movie, you’ll be humming I’m So Humble for days afterwards. A spot-on Kanye parody, it showcases Samberg’s frontman experience in front of a packed stadium. Setting out its stall with the loving Ye ribbing, the movie swiftly moves through Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Macklemore and that’s just in the first 15 minutes. And during that time you’ll learn that the world’s most cis male things include hot wings and HDTV. Anyhoos, while the tracks are for the most part just hilarious, a couple of them are insanely good. Conner4Real’s opening act, Chris Redd’s Hunter the Hungry, walks away with what is easily the best tune on a great soundtrack. Hunter the Hungry Is Gon’ Eat is a grimy, DMX-tinged banger that deserves a place on everyone’s playlist. And again, much of the music is played as live… Sound familiar?
But fear not, if you’ve never heard of Macklemore or even The Lonely Island, it makes no difference. The parodies are amazing, but what makes Popstar so great is that the jokes could be about almost any artist.
To wit: when The Style Boyz break up on stage during a flashback, I swore it was a reference to Blink 182 doing exactly that at Brixton Academy. The internet, though, thinks it was actually The Eagles. Similarly, the web is convinced that the concert scenes reference One Direction, but for my money, they look a hell of a lot like a Justin Timberlake video from way back when. And that’s the beauty of the comedy.
But the comedy doesn’t just come from the musical references. Like all good parodies, The Lonely Islandhas experience and knowledge of the industry they’re lampooning. As a result, Popstar has one of the strongest music-related supporting casts in film history.
Consisting almost entirely of musicians, the conviction on display as various superstars describe their devotion to a fictional band is astonishing. Mariah Carey and Nas in particular turn in superb performances, and there’s a Snoop Dogg cameo that’ll make you laugh out loud. And the few pro comedians and actors that appear in the movie are just as good. Maya Rudolph and Sarah Silverman are pitch-perfect, say-anything-to-get-the-contract execs and Shaffer’s newfound nuance and subtlety are a revelation.
But the true star of the movie, comedy-wise, is Tim Meadows.
Saturday Night Live alum and current member of The Goldbergs’ ensemble, Meadows steals every scene he’s in. His portrayal of a frustrated former boy band member-turned-sell out manager/father figure to Conner is absolute perfection.
He’s also responsible for the best line in the movie during discussions about an opening act. It will seriously haunt you, forcing you to shoot tea through your nose three weeks later when your brain inexplicably throws it at you one morning. Or so I’m told. That best line decision, though, wasn’t an easy one to make. Sarah Silverman’s cynical PR vixen came so close, delivering a fantastic line with the pinpoint precision of a true comedy genius. I won’t spoil either of them for you. You’ll thank me later.
Yet Popstar isn’t just a goofy spoof of pop culture. It goes much deeper than that, commenting on a ton of social issues with a deft touch. From the rampant egomania of the music industry, and the constant need to make more and more money, to the fickle nature of fame, the exploitation of performers, jumping on social issues to make money and social media, almost nothing is left out.
But, crucially, none of it is preachy. For example, when Conner does a U2 and uploads his terrible album to every domestic appliance in the country, he’s accused of selling out. To which he replies, “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore, man. That’s not how big business works. Nowadays, if you don’t sell out, people will wonder if nobody asked you to.” Because, you know, see above.
Popstar’s genius, though, doesn’t stop there. Believe it or not the movie is also responsible for not one, but two, pop culture phenomena.
The first is The Masked Singer, and again, I won’t spoil it for you, but if The Lonely Islanddon’t get royalties from that show, they really should consult a lawyer. Because they for real invented it. And the second? Well, given Conner’s propensity to film, narrate and post literally everything he does, no matter how, ahem, intimate, surely celebrity pay-to-play organisation Only Fans owes The Lonely Island a thank you?
So, that’s music, comedy, social commentary and pop culture prescience. But films like Popstar hinge on their central performance, and Samberg’s is excellent. In other, less experienced hands, Conner would be a petulant, barely literate poser. But Samberg manages to imbue that petulant illiteracy with a sweet sadness, mad turtle love and a ton of charm. Also, dick jokes. More than that, though, his confidence and sheer level of comfort allow everyone to breathe, giving the entire movie a warm, natural glow. So much so that when The Style Boys eventually get back together, it’ll put a genuine smile on your face. Just like Spinal Tap.
In decades to come, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping will be considered The Lonely Island’s meisterwerk – even considering how well Palm Springs is going down – as revered as Spinal Tap for its humour, satire and fantastic tunes. And, in a perfect world, the catchphrase “Patrick Stewart. Money.” will become common parlance.
Still not convinced? How about this for a meta-bomb to leave you with… One of the pieces on the soundtrack was written and performed by none other than The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith. Yup. That’s deep yo. And that’s what I call receipts.
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