It's fair to say that in 2016, Americans failed to do the right thing. The choice was so clear, and yet when all was said and done, millions of our fellow citizens left their homes, drove to their geographically designated locations, and... bought a ticket for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows instead of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Comedies play best with crowds, where the infectious laughter of dozens or even hundreds of strangers can really lighten a mood, not to mention alert you that you might be missing a sight gag (ever see Airplane with a crowd? If not, then you haven't seen it). Unfortunately, the crowds weren't there - I saw it on opening weekend and I think there were about ten other people scattered throughout the auditorium.
But as with nearly all box office dud comedies (including MacGruber, which was also directed by Jorma Taccone), Popstar found its audience on home video and the like, and has become a cult classic in just three short years - there are even sing-along screenings at the Drafthouse from time to time! Which is probably why Shout Factory saw it as a valid title to license from Universal and release on their label, as they often do for much older films that had similar fates at the box office but have earned plenty of fans along the years (such as Streets of Fire and Matinee). The bonus features are the same as the original release, but it now comes in a steelbook featuring an incredibly funny cover that might not make sense to those who haven't seen the film, but fans can tell you is a genius design.
For those uninitiated, Popstar is a parody of the then-recent wave of pop music docs like Justin Bieber's Believe and Katy Perry: Part of Me, filtered through the warped minds of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, collectively known as The Lonely Island. If you're familiar with their brand of comedy from their SNL Digital Shorts or previous movie Hot Rod (another example of a box office dud that everyone I talk to really likes), you know what you're in for here as far as the comedy goes, but the film's soundtrack also functioned as the 4th album from the trio, giving fans more bang for their buck. Not every song from the album appears in the movie, and some that do are only heard briefly, but that's just an example of what makes the film work: it's incredibly well crafted compared to other modern comedies (some from the same people involved with producing this one, cough Judd Apatow cough), and doesn't just toss in too many gags for the sake of having gags.
The story of the film - about how megastar Conner4real (Samberg) finds himself in a career nosedive when his second solo album flops - has nearly innumerable cameos from fellow comedians and real life musicians playing themselves, often hilariously so (Nas is a particular revelation). Given the trio's history of improv as well as the huge cast and mockumentary approach, there's zero surprise in learning that they shot tons of unused material, leaving certain performers like Joan Cusack and Will Forte barely visible in the final cut of the film, which runs under 90 minutes with credits. Others, like Natasha Lyonne and Seth Meyers, got cut completely, but if you pick up the Blu-ray you can see their scenes, along with others that flesh out supporting characters like Bill Hader's Zippy and Ashley Moore's Sarah. These scenes are hit or miss, of course; some of them only serve to run a joke into the ground (there were three bee attacks at one point), others are pretty funny and maybe could have been left in after all, such as when Eddie (Edgar Blackmon), one of Conner's many sycophantic hanger-ons, suggests that the album sales could be improved if there was some kind of location where fans could buy it on a CD, "like the internet... as a STORE!"
But what I noticed when going through the 40+ minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes (plus the deleted songs) is that they made the right call pretty much every step of the way, cutting things that didn't serve the story instead of just leaving them in because they feature one of their pals doing something funny. It's a problem that I've had with a number of Apatow's directorial efforts, where he will toss in a useless supporting character simply because they happen to be funny people (Funny People being one of the biggest offenders), not because they're an important element of the story. That's not the case here - we all know Maya Rudolph is hilarious, but we don't need to be reminded as she rattles off the list of her fellow execs' (strange) names for 90 seconds straight. Funny? Sure (though it'll depend on the viewer of course). Necessary? Not in the slightest. So it's gone.
Trimming it of its fat even made some jokes play better. The aforementioned bee attack is a comedic highlight (hence the cover, see below), but if they did it three times I'd probably be rolling my eyes by the end of it; what could have been a running gag with diminishing returns is instead a one-off bit memorable enough to get used for the steelbook art. Even better example: Conner's assistant Sarah is seen plenty of times in the deleted footage, and it's never particularly funny, let alone necessary. So most of her stuff went, but one bit that remains is a cutaway to her obliviously sitting at the table during a big fight between Conner and one of his bandmates. Because her role was so minimized, the gag plays as a rather hilarious "Wait, who is this person again?" moment (in the vein of Dave Foley's classic "Just a guy..." bit in the Kids in the Hall movie) as opposed to what would have been the 5th or 6th example of Sarah being completely useless.
By keeping focused, even at the expense of funny gags or entire performances (Meyer was playing himself, helpfully telling Conner during his late night interview that his "Sexual freedom for all" lyric has an unfortunate connotation - and if you don't know, YOU google it), the actual story manages to register in a rather sweet way. As we learn early on, Conner was once a member of the Style Boyz, a hip hop trio, before a falling out with Lawrence (Schaffer's character) had him branch out on a solo career, taking the other member, Owen (Taccone), along with him as his DJ. The falling out was over some lyrics that Conner credited himself for writing despite the fact that Lawrence co-wrote them (and perhaps wrote them entirely himself), setting the stage for a long awaited apology as Owen tries to "Parent Trap them". If the movie ran over two hours like most Apatow productions, audiences might stop caring - maybe even forget entirely - what the beef was about, but we check in with Lawrence every 20-25 minutes, enough to keep it fresh. When (spoiler, for people who have never seen this or any other movie before) Conner finally does apologize, it's not "too late" - it's perfectly timed, and works as well as Jerry and Dean reuniting on the telethon.
The best comedies, the ones that last a long time, usually (emphasis on USUALLY - you do not need to name exceptions as I know they exist) have a real story stringing all those jokes together, grounding the characters in a way that allows us to get invested in their arcs, as opposed to letting them be interchangeable punchline delivery systems. I enjoy Hot Rod, but it fell victim to that sort of thing at times, letting things just go on forever just because they were funny - something they really reigned in here. They keep the laughs coming constantly (one of my favorite gags is when Conner has to make a big choice about the climax of the movie, as a perplexed stage manager reports on how he's just "sort of looking all contemplative, looking back and forth..."), but the Lonely Island team and editors Craig Alpert, Jamie Gross, and Stacey Schroeder worked with that excess of footage to craft what's a legitimately sweet story of putting your friends first. AND it offers a bit of a cautionary tale of how awful someone will turn out to be when his star rises and he surrounds himself with yes men who agree with everything he says instead of those who will challenge his worst impulses. Didn't work in 2016 - maybe they can re-release it next summer or fall?