Release date: 26th August 2016
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
It’s scarcely possible to discuss musical spoofs without the ghost of This Is Spinal Tap billowing fluffily in the background, so let’s just get it out of the way. ‘Spinal Tap for the YouTube/Twitter/Snapchat generation’ has already been thrown around liberally with reference to Andy Samberg’s latest big screen outing, and while that’s a convenient hook to hang a review on, it smacks of laziness and isn’t completely fair to The Lonely Island boys – two of whom also directed the project (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) – who’ve altogether managed to craft a warm, clever, and very, very funny film, regardless of the ‘80s classic that started it all.
In a narrative arc that roughly apes as well as sends up the career trajectory of the YouTube-stars-turned-SNL-superstars themselves, Popstar follows the life of Conner Friel (Andy Samberg) via documentary format at the height of his solo stardom. On the eve of releasing his highly anticipated second album, the punnily named ‘Connquest’, Conner, now styled as ‘Conner4real’, is seen reminiscing about his success so far, preparing for his upcoming tour and being pandered to by various hangers on and sycophants including a ‘perspective wrangler’ (yes, really) and a guy who kicks him in the, er, balls, to “remind him where he came from”.
Clearly though, the regular ball-kickings aren’t working. Conner is an amiable jackass, unmistakably cast in the Bieber mould – the crappy yet numerous tattoos, the leanings towards hip-hop infused pop, and the naff white boy swagger that allows him to somehow pull it all off, soundtracked to the screams of a delighted teen fanbase, all poke gentle fun at the Biebs without being too mean. But he also has a huge ego; Conner knows deep down he owes all his success to being a former member of the Style Boyz, along with Owen a.k.a ‘Kid Contact’ (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence a.k.a ‘Kid Brain’ (Akiva Schaffer), who had all the panache of a low-rent Beastie Boys and were wildly popular, and it grates. Through flashback footage, we see that a bust-up between Conner and Lawrence over Conner’s diva-like dominance of the band led to their dissolution: Conner became the breakout star, with talented beats-maker Owen relegated to being his DJ, whilst Lawrence, responsible for their best songs, disappeared to work on a farm in remote Colorado, carving epically shit wood carvings and nursing a bitter, beardy grudge against his former compadre.
Almost overnight Conner’s world begins to fall apart through a series of missteps and plain bad luck: a poorly received single release – a howlingly awful equal rights anthem which sees Conner panic whisper-sing between lines that he’s absolutely not gay – an unfortunate corporate sponsor, and an aggressively ambitious opening act who threatens to overshadow the main act and may or may not be actively trying to sabotage him, all conspire to take him down a few pegs. Conner retaliates by making some bad decisions. He saddles the long-suffering Owen with a terrifying Deadmau5-style helmet, which emits a blinding laser, to wear during his concerts and there’s a nervy scene involving something called ‘Party Wolves’ which I won’t spoil for you but has to be seen. Inevitably, his fanbase and the public mood in general turn against him and at his lowest point, he can be seen festering in his mum’s house, a depressed and dishevelled shut-in. Of course, then comes the even more inevitable journey towards redemption and forgiveness, which sees him reunite with his former boyband pals and win the heart of the masses again. This section of the film is predictable and less ripe for comedic offerings, but by this point you’re rooting so hard for Conner to get back to the top again that it doesn’t really matter.
It may sound oxymoronic but a big part of the reason that absurdist hijinks and goofball humour works so well in Popstar is because of how grounded it is in reality: there’s nothing in it that couldn’t feasibly happen in real life, or hasn’t already occurred. Conner’s bratty persona and his mundane Snapchat updates are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a glancing reference to Kanye’s infamous Taylor Swift awards show diss, the OTT sets and numerous costume-changes (involving a pretty epic wardrobe malfunction) of Conner’s live shows aren’t all that removed from Katy Perry’s concert extravaganzas, and a totally moronic yet somehow accurate skewering of TMZ, who gleefully devour every single one of Conner’s misfortunes is so on the nose it ends up being the funniest thing about the film. The famous cameos also help to mimic reality, with people like Mariah Carey, A$AP Rocky and Questlove stating how brilliant Conner is in the hyperbolic fashion that’s typical of celeb tributes. Some suspension of belief is necessary though to buy into the Conner4real universe, especially if you try to logically work out how exactly it is that the Style Boyz can be considered an influence by both Usher and Nas, both of whom found success in the early ‘90s – which would surely make them late 80s icons? And it doesn’t make sense how much the music of the Style Boyz is venerated above Conner’s recent material, when arguably it’s not that different.
Luckily the minor disconnects don’t detract from the overall enjoyability of the film and the music doesn’t disappoint either. From the slickly produced ‘I’m So Humble’ which is really just an extended humblebrag featuring the infamously un-humble Adam Levine, to the sex jam and borderline offensive ‘Finest Girl’ which compares a one night stand to the assassination of Bin Laden, the tunes amuse whilst also sounding like the kind of songs which would hit the top of the charts (swapped out for less WTF lyrics though, obvs.). An excellent supporting cast is also present to bolster Conner’s career, including his good-natured and mildly exhausted manager Harry (Tim Meadows), his cynical but ruthless publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman) who delivers one of the best lines, sans irony: “We’d like to get to the point where Conner is everywhere – like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression”, and a great though brief turn from Justin Timberlake as Conner’s nebbish tour chef Tyrus Quash, who’s amusingly in thrall to Conner’s star persona. By the end of the film, it’s hard for the audience to not have a soft spot for the loveable dork as well, even if there’s a nagging sense that this was a missed opportunity for slightly harder-hitting satire.
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)