Technically, I'm not sure it's possible to digress before beginning to discuss something, but I'm going to anyway. Remember that amazing 10-year streak director Rob Reiner had from 1984 to 1994? I recall thinking, This guy's like the Beatles of the big screen; he seems incapable of making a wrong move. Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, The Sure Thing, Misery, When Harry Met Sally..., A Few Good Men, all within that span. If Reiner had pulled off just The Princess Bride, his place in movie history would've been secured for eternity.
We won't talk about what came later. But there is one more Reiner picture we do need to talk about: This Is Spinal Tap (1984). This classic wasn't just the world's first mockumentary; it was the director's first feature film! If he'd pulled off just that one comedy — well, you get the idea.
I mention This Is Spinal Tap, of course, because we're here today to discuss Hollywood's most recent mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It's the work of the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone), the comedy trio responsible for "Lazy Sunday," "Dick in a Box" and other digital shorts that were broadcast on "Saturday Night Live" and went superviral. Not surprisingly, this is a very funny film.
Comparing and contrasting Popstar to Spinal Tap underscores what's changed over the past 30 years in music and in what Joni Mitchell once called "the star-maker machinery" of the record business. For example, records have gone the way of the dodo bird. Samberg stars as Conner, a world-famous, top-selling rapper, but what the doofus actually sells is beyond me. In the age of Spotify and YouTube, who pays for what they play?
Putting the movies side by side also points out what's changed in our culture since 1984. So much has, and Samberg and company get it so right. Written by all three Islanders and directed by Schaffer and Taccone, the film perfectly captures the commercialization of contemporary pop and the obsession with celebrity, both of which make successes like Conner possible.
Originally a member of a hip-hop boy band, our protagonist gets a big head, leaves to pursue a solo career, rebrands himself as "Conner4Real" and stumbles his way to stardom with his first album. As the movie opens, he's counting down the days to the "surprise drop next Thursday" of his second, humbly titled CONNquest, which actually contains a song called "I'm So Humble."
Popstar is consistently insightful in its send-up of today's star-maker machinery, chronicling Conner's constant self-promotion via social media (at one point, he live-streams his own body waxing) and his mandatory playful appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
When the record bombs, Conner is deeply dumbfounded. Which is to say, marginally more than usual. The film's most entertaining elements are its performance parodies, so things get hilarious in a hurry when the rapper tries to turn things around with a tour. The songs are an insanely comic combination of infectious beats and deranged lyrics. The Judd Apatow-produced film pushes the raunch envelope farther than any mainstream comedy in memory.
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. I'm not sure future canonization awaits Popstar, but, from where I stand today, I don't see a comedy in this genre that compares with it. Music may have become unprecedentedly vacuous over the past three decades, but the mockumentary is alive and well and as inventive as ever.