Saturday, 10 December 2016

Movie Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)



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In the realms of modern comedy, there really only seem to be two groups that are holding the charge in terms of white guys doing funny but still well composed comedic hip hop: Epic Rap Battles Of History and The Lonely Island. One of the few properly consistent acts to spawn from the current era of Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone have entered the realms of meme legend on numerous occasions with hits like Jizz In My Pants, I Just Had Sex and their Yuletide slow jam Dick In A Box. Their music, while not exactly the most consistent on an album basis, combined a keen eye for poking fun at pop music trends with an actual ear for beats and music to create some seriously funny songs. Naturally, when news hit that they would be bringing a full-length cinematic production this year, you better believe that I was anxious for it… until, for some reason, it was pulled from Australian cinemas. Luckily, this did get a DVD release so I could include it in this year’s list of films, but how is the film itself? Is it a gem that our screwed-up priorities just let slip through the cracks, or should we be thankful that this didn’t get a wide release? This is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.


The plot: Conner4Real (Adam Samberg), a rapper who went solo after his group Style Boyz broke up, is on the cusp of releasing his sophomore album Connquest. He, his manager Harry (Tim Meadows) and his DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone) set out on a promotional U.S. tour with underground opening act Hunter The Hungry (Chris Redd) in tow. The resulting film is a ‘documentary’ of the many trials and tribulations that befall Conner as he tries to get the public to accept his music and, possibly, rediscover why he got into music in the first place.

As a mockumentary about the current pop music scene, and rap music in particular, it’s remarkably astute in its perceptions. The ridiculous monetary excess, the history of Conner4Real that incorporates different artist backgrounds into a rather cohesive whole, the acknowledgement of pop audiences not caring as much as they should about who produces and writes the songs as opposed as the name artist performing them, famous names like Questlove, 50 Cent and Nas showing up just to aggrandize the subject, even the milestones of his career that speak way too accurately about what it really takes to get famous in this business; it all rings true. Hell, Andy Samberg being brought front and centre works both within the narrative of the film, as stories of solo acts springing from popular groups is a common tale told in the music business, and also fits in with their original ethos, as Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s main schtick within the group was how nondescript they were (just look at their tracks like We’ll Kill U) while Samberg was always the loud front man.

The reason why The Lonely Island, far more than possibly any other comedic hip-hop group in recent memory, is regarded as well as they are is because they actually create good music. This is by no means an exception to that. From the Beastie Boys-aping of the Style Boyz to the Macklemore riffing of Equal Rights to some more classic Lonely Island material like Bin Laden and Humble, the Catchphrase verse that paints way too accurate a picture of today’s meme rap landscape, even Hunter The Hungry’s overtly-grimy verses, all sound pretty good within their respective spheres. It’s goofy and remarkably silly, but it’s still music that’s worth listening to beyond just blind irony.

However, for as much as this works really well when taken piece-by-piece, it doesn’t end up creating that full of a feature-length production. To that end, I’ll make a (hopefully) quick comparison to the god of all mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap, and what ultimately makes that film as iconic as it is whereas this one kind of falls short. Really, it boils down to how seriously the respective actors were willing to take the material. In Spinal Tap, the actors involved stuck to musical kayfabe like few others have managed and the film had a very genuine feeling to it because of it. Here, as a result of the usual Saturday Night Live winking-to-the-audience approach to both the comedy and how the music aligns with it, it ends up feeling like too much of a comedic hoax for the mockumentary end of things to really connect. Comedy is always at its best, especially satire, when it is taken as seriously as it would if this were framed as a drama, and unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of that here. If this was a short film, it honestly would have worked out a lot better as The Lonely Island have shown in the past, but here, the jocular tone of the work starts to wear down on the audience before too long.

All in all, while it may be weaker than the sum of its parts, that doesn’t mean that its parts are worth discarding in light of that. The acting is solid, the direction may be a little too slick for a mockumentary but still works within its realm of spoofing the overall aesthetic, the writing, when it actually takes time to focus, makes very sharp and hilarious points about the current pop music scene and the music shows The Lonely Island doing what they do best. Honestly, if you’re a fan of these guys in any way, this is definitely worth checking out however you can. It’s better than You’re Not Thinking Straight as, just to show how much of an unrepentant hip-hop head I am, the points made here about music are actually more poignant than those about adulthood in that film. However, for as much as I like this film when it really picks up, its high points aren't as potent as those in Death Note: Light Up The New World.

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