Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping Review
By Adam Yuster
Rob Reiner’s 1984 romp This Is Spinal Tap is the quintessential representation of rock culture. Starring Reiner himself, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, the movie took the form of a mockumentary that followed the fictional band Spinal Tap as they were on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. This Is Spinal Tap features a famous scene towards its end wherein a replica of Stonehenge is lowered onto the stage during the band’s performance of a song with the same name. This replica, in its design stage a gigantic, awe-inspiring set piece, is about the height of lead singer David’s waist due to a clerical error. When later asked why he thought the song wasn’t taken seriously by their audience, David replies, “I think the problem was that there was a Stonehenge monument onstage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”
It’s obvious that when writing Popstar, Lonely Island members and SNL alums Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone took inspiration from Spinal Tap. Popstar, too, is a mockumentary about a thoroughly ridiculous music group. Whereas Spinal Tap satirizes hair metal bands, Popstar takes aim at contemporary pop and hip hop. In the vain of its predecessor, Popstar has its own share of onstage shenanigans, largely triggered by its bumbling star, the ever-oblivious Connor Friel/Connor4real (Samberg). There’s a mechanical helmet Connor makes his DJ wear that’s so bright it blinds his audience, a holographic Adam Levine singing backup for Connor that grinds on another holographic Adam Levine mid-concert, an impromptu sing-off/rap battle between Connor and his opening act Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), and much, much more.
So much more, in fact, that at a certain point the film devolves into a series of public embarrassments and sophomoric gags that land to varying degrees. Plot and character alike are tossed to the wayside in favor of an in-your-face tone and a relentless barrage of sophomoric jokes. While these jokes admittedly are often funny, they lack the subtlety that made Spinal Tap so great, and they’re definitely not for everyone. Overall, Popstar feels less like a movie and more like an extended SNL Digital Short.
Popstar’s plot is simple: Connor4real is a pop superstar who is on the brink of releasing his second album. Everyone in his life lives to please him from his manager (Tim Meadows) to his best friend/DJ Owen (Taccone). When his album flops both critically and commercially, Connor must find a way to preserve his reputation and remain relevant, even if that means reuniting the feuding members of his old boy band The Style Boyz.
This is one of those stories that seems a lot more interesting on paper than it is on screen. In the grand tradition of similarly hit-or-miss Adam Sandler movies like Billy Madison, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone have crafted a plot that mainly exists as a way to get from one joke to the next. Really, this is a movie that lives or dies by its jokes.
Don’t get me wrong, a fair amount of those jokes are actually funny. There’s a running gag involving Justin Timberlake as a personal chef who secretly wants to be a singer that is meta comedy gold. There’s a visual gag involving Bill Hader as a roadie with a death wish that’s almost worth the admission price alone. And I’d be amiss not to mention the original songs, written and recorded by the Lonely Island, that sport every bit of the politically incorrect, gut-busting humor fans have come to expect from Samberg’s real-life Style Boyz counterpart. But for every great joke, there’s twice as many duds. For example, the movie’s sequence with Seal (one that’s been heavily showcased in TV spots for months) is more mean-spirited than funny. Maya Rudolph’s cameo as a corporate sponsor is laughless, as is a pretty dull joke involving Connor’s pet turtle. The good news is Andy Samberg brings such an exuberance and goofy enthusiasm to his role that every scene featuring his character is at least somewhat redeemable, even if the jokes don’t match his performance. The bad news is that in scenes where Samberg’s presence is minimal, the film’s flaws are glaringly obvious.
In another famous sequence from Spinal Tap, the band’s guitarist Nigel shows a documentary filmmaker his specially designed amp. Nigel explains to the filmmaker than while most amps go up to 10, all the settings on his amp go to 11. “Why don’t you just make 10 louder?” the filmmaker asks. Nigel pauses, chews on his gum, and deadpans, “These go to 11.” He’s completely missed the point.
Popstar is no Spinal Tap. Popstar’s over-the-top gags may “go to 11”, so to speak, but just as Nigel doesn’t understand the comment regarding amp volume, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone don’t seem to understand that it takes more than jokes to make a movie.