Thursday 12 March 2020

From the archive: "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping"

That old saw "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll" may obscure a particular truth: how many comedians actually want to be rock stars, to play the big arenas and get the girls, not to mention the kind of folding money rarely distributed to the guest turns at the Amused Moose. It's evident in a long tradition of comedy songs - from Tom Lehrer through Spinal Tap to "Weird" Al Yankovic - and further confirmed by the affectionate new comedy Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which sounds out the laughs to be had from a recurring pop-cultural narrative: that of the boyband refusenik who strikes out on his own. Think Robbie. Think Justin. Think - and spare a thought for - Antony Costa from Blue.

To that stellar list, Popstar addends the stage name Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), breakout heartthrob of pre-packaged teen sensations The Style Boyz before their amicable split at the start of the decade. We rejoin Conner on the next leg of his #journey, taking to the road ahead of his new solo album "Connquest" dropping, as albums are prone to do in an age when they're no longer physically required to turn up at record shops. It is, suffice to say, a rocky road, made more uneven yet by lousy reviews, worse sales, and Conner's inability to make peace with his own past.

We're headed towards a reunion, of course, and Popstar was surely conceived as a reunion of sorts, returning Samberg (currently enjoying wild solo success on TV's Brooklyn Nine-Nine) with Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, his partners-in-comedy-crime in the troupe known as Lonely Island. LI generated several of the foremost SNL skits and spoof videos of recent times, including the none-more-viral "Dick in a Box"; here, they have plentiful satirical material on their hands in the form of all that heavily Autotuned, brainwormy fodder currently clogging the US and UK singles charts.

Conner's very credible songs include "Equal Rights", a note-perfect takedown of that Macklemore track in which the singer hymns gay marriage while taking pains to point out that he himself is not remotely homosexual; and an uptempo ditty in which our hero recounts his adventures with a girl who wanted him to do to her what the American military apparently did to Osama bin Laden. (The Island remain sick lyricists: this number somehow manages to rhyme "metaphor" with "stegosaur", before climaxing with the pointed refrain "invade my cave with your special unit". I think you get the picture.)

If there's anything so substantial as a theme here, it may be the popworld's cult of realness - certain performers' need to appear authentic by any means necessary. Conner counts among his entourage one flunky known as a "perspective manipulator" (a tiny man hired to stand next to the star at photoshoots so as to make him look taller) and another who sporadically punches Conner in the balls, "so as to remind him where he's come from". The goal is to razz those industry manoeuvres the average season of The X Factor takes so incredibly seriously - there's even a cameo from our old friend Simon Cowell, keen to show that, though he may have screwed over everything pop music once stood for, he at least has a sense of humour about it.

The film, too, demonstrates a pretty good sense of humour, producer Judd Apatow - current kingmaker of American comedy - calling in enough appearances to sate even the most demanding of comedy nerds. Everyone's here: Tim Meadows, hitting a nice groove as Conner's long-suffering manager; Sarah Silverman as his publicist; Bill Hader as a roadie with an unusual hobby derived from a semi-forgotten late 80s film; Will Arnett, Eric Andre and Mike Birbiglia among the Jumbo Slurpee-quaffing denizens of a TMZ-like gossip website; and, inevitably, Jimmy Fallon himself.

No-one deviates too greatly from the spitballing methods that have distinguished the post-Apatovian comedy, and several players' contributions have ended up on the cutting-room floor: there's not enough Joan Cusack (there very rarely is these days), while The Inbetweeners' James Buckley is limited to hovering around the background of scenes in 30 Seconds To Mars get-up. (As much as the script emphasises the importance of teamwork, some comedy pecking order is clearly in place.)

Still, it has enough good, funny ideas to sustain it over a lively and very likable ninety minutes: witness Soggy Bones Syndrome, a disastrous wedding proposal involving a pack of wolves and the singer Seal, an unlikely appropriation of the film The Parent Trap, and a Viking funeral that turns into a pool party. And I suspect the soundtrack album - do they still do those? - would hold up very nicely.

(MovieMail, August 2016)

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping screens on Channel 4 tomorrow at 12.10am.

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