First, to answer the inevitable question, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is not as good as This is Spinal Tap. Popstar is incredibly funny, and had me laughing out loud at multiple points; but thirty years out from Spinal Tap, I think it’s safe to say it’s become one in those pantheon of films that will always be *the* perfect example of its genre. Spinal Tap invented turning it to 11, after all. And as much as I usually dislike directly comparing two movies in a review, I feel that comparisons aren’t just inevitable, but important for understanding why Spinal Tap can still be enjoyed and beloved by people who weren’t even alive during the period it parodies while Popstar will likely feel dated by the time that teenagers who sneak into see this movie will be old enough to legally drink.
But before jumping further into comparisons, I really should give Popstar its due.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a concert-mockumentary following Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), once a member of a late 90’s/early 2000’s boyband-trio “The Style Boyz” who has since broken out as a solo act, and on the verge of his concert tour to promote his second album, written without the help of the band-mates that made him famous. When the album flops critically and commercially, and he is left unable to fill the stadiums along his concert route, Conner tries all types of gimmicks, and contends with everything from wardrobe malfunctions to spotlight-hogging opening acts to reclaim his pop-glory.
The admittedly cliché plot leaves a lot of room for Popstar to focus on its characters, gags, and references while neatly pushing us through every expected narrative beat. Justins Bieber and Timberlake are the two most prominent inspirations for Conner4Real, borrowing from the latter’s path to stardom and the former’s media presence – going as specific as referencing his Anne Frank House incident. Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer) are great as Conner’s pitiable unappreciated ex-bandmates; with Owen tagging along as Conner’s DJ who’s been reduced from actual composing and playing to pressing play on an ipod, while lyricist Lawrence has dropped out of music entirely to start a farm. The film’s breakout performance is newcomer Chris Redd as Conner’s opening act/rival, Hunter the Hungry, an underground and on-the-rise rapper with a pranking streak. Redd’s best moment is a scene where he throws his entire face into repeatedly admitting or denying pulling a certain prank way past the point where the gag should’ve lost its novelty.
Rounding out the cast are Conner’s well-meaning manager (Tim Meadows), savvy publicist (Sarah Silverman), stardom-seeking chef (Justin Timberlake), over 30 yes-men and personal crew (which range from hair stylist to sneaker curator to balls-puncher); and a number of celebrity cameos (Carrie Underwood, Mariah Carey, DJ Khaled, Questlove, Seal, Nas, etc.) that never feel shoehorned in, and cement the film’s place in pop-music history.
Popstar’s humor is dumb in all the right ways. It runs the gamut from genital jokes to surreal humor and exaggeration, and of course is chock full of pop-culture references. The references are the most hit-and-miss, and will be the first to become dated, but the ones that hit hit hard. So while a riff on U2’s auto-downloaded album scandal is a whiff; its take on TMZ drew constant full-belly laughter despite being the film’s absolute dumbest joke. But the film’s best moments are unarguably the song parodies. These are Popstar at its most absurd and its most immaculate. They start out maybe too predictable at first with Conner bragging about how humble he is; but quickly escalate to an earworm about a woman who wants sexual relations comparable to the assassination of Bin Laden. And the best/worst part about every song in the movie is that you’ll have them stuck in your head for hours after. They’re just damn good songs.
Now onto the comparisons.
On a surface-most level, Popstar feels too scripted for the mockumentary style. I’ll admit to not having seen the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never, or other recent concert docs which Popstar is riffing on; so maybe super-polished is the style that these things go for today, but it created a distance between myself and the movie that prevented me from getting fully engaged with the subject. Spinal Tap has a constant feeling of improv and looseness to it, from the camera work to the acting, which lends the fictional band a warm believability. Conversely, many of the gags and much of the humor in Popstar relies on the sort of editing and tight scripting that constantly reminded me of the artifice of the whole thing. Many of these jokes do land, and land spectacularly at that, but they felt like jokes that were clearly rehearsed and produced instead of something that could have just popped up over the course of the fictional musician’s life. Maybe this is the film critiquing how today’s music scene is more artificial and overproduced than in times past; but honestly, I don’t know enough about the music world to give a definitive answer on that.
Going deeper, both Spinal Tap and Popstar are at their both when at their most surreal; and Popstar feels almost too bogged down in pop-culture reference to really lose itself in the surreality. Maybe this is because Spinal Tap was already long ago enough for its references to bake into culture or become altogether unnoticeable. Alternatively this might be a reflection of just how much more absurd pop-culture and celebrity are today compared to the 80s (which just…doesn’t seem right when I write it in black-and white). But Popstar just doesn’t come close to the classic Spinal Tap gags including Stonehenge, exploding drummers, the black album, “Lick my Love Pump, or the one that’s managed to enter the English lexicon, “goes to eleven.” The closest Popstar gets to this, aside from the songs, are also the film’s best moments. But even some of these jokes, like Owen’s version of a Daft Punk helmet, whose features include a beam of light visible from the stratosphere and a deafening foghorn; or Conner taking a dump at the Anne Frank house are connected to cultural events which probably won’t be remembered even a few years down the line. And while Popstar makes some of the best use of celebrity cameo this side of The Muppets, to the point where a couple of them draw some of the biggest laughs in the movie; they too will only serve to age the film.
Despite the negativity of those past couple paragraphs, I still recommend Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. While I worry about the longevity of the film, seeing it today, while it’s at its most relevant, will have you leave the theater in stitches.