Treated and Released - Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (June 3, 2016)

All I can say is, thank goodness the confusing trend of "pop tour documentary culminating in a 3D concert film" seems to have fizzled after a few years. As concert films, I'm sure they served their purpose, giving a low-cost alternative for young fans who would like to see their teen idol perform without spending five hundred bucks on tickets. As documentaries, they are putrid, sanitized lumps of fluff, documenting more than anything how aggressively music executives can sell a brand. When a nakedly vapid trend like this arrives in cinemas, sharp comedy personalities can't resist taking a stab at the most absurd aspects of it.

The 2007 lukewarm release of Hot Rod was the feature film debut of The Lonely Island, the trio of musical miscreant comedians who kept "Saturday Night Live" on life support through the mid-'00s by producing the famed Digital Shorts that went long-term viral. But in June of 2016, amid gigantic comic book film releases and peak Disney overload, the group led a biting, outrageous R-rated mockumentary in the specifically glitzy, origin-story format of the 3D concert doc. It might not have looked like it from the marketing, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping skewered Justin Beiber: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me in the same exquisite way Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story did to films like Walk the Line or Ray. It was a spot-on, succinct lampoon of a very specific formula, with plenty of inspired whimsical nonsense peppered throughout. It didn't hurt that it also featured terrific small performances from comedians like Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman, as well as game cameos from real popstars like Seal, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, and of course frequent Lonely Island collaborator Justin Timberlake.

It's a perfectly enjoyable movie, exactly of its time. Unfortunately, despite plenty of critical praise with whispers of "closest thing to This is Spinal Tap we've had in years," the film only scared up $4.6 million in its opening weekend, and bombed out of theaters with a $9 million gross against a fairly meager $20 million budget. Wow, in a post-Hangover landscape, how does that even happen to an inexpensive, hip, R-rated comedy? Well, it's a combination of things. I suspect a lot of moviegoers got nervous at the sight of what appeared to be a comedy about a white hip-hop artist. You know, those have a habit of usually being insufferable trash. Additionally, the film didn't have a worldwide release, but in all fairness it probably wouldn't have played well in foreign markets, being mostly a spoof of a uniquely American trend.

Among the business problems of Popstar, as you might guess, I'd like to point out that June 3, 2016 was an incredibly crowded release. Not crowded by new movies, though. While Popstar was the only R-rated wide release, it opened against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, a film with the kind of marketing blitzkrieg that accompanies that splendid mixture of nostalgia-bait, comic book adaptation, and (allegedly) family-friendly CGI characters. Other than that, the only new release was Me Before You, a weepy yet youth-aimed romance. On its face, this isn't a bad release slate for Popstar to carve out some solid territory with the age 18-35 demographic, right?

Well, then we factor in X-Men: Apocalypse in its second week, Alice Through the Looking Glass in its second week, The Angry Birds Movie on week 3, the juggernaut Captain America: Civil War in week 5, and surprisingly Neighbors 2: Sorority Row coming in fairly hot in its third week. That's so very, very crowded. The Turtles won the weekend with only $35 million, and Me Before You turned out to be a bit of a counter-programming darling, taking $18 million for the weekend in the number-three slot behind X-Men. The romantic drama eventually hit $56 million domestic, and reported the same $20 million budget as Popstar.

This must have been infuriating for Universal Pictures, who watched seven years previous with pure shock as a similarly raunchy R-rated comedy, The Hangover, made $45 million on the same first weekend in June, off only a $35 million budget. That movie went on to make $277 million, just domestically. That's equivalent to a B-level Marvel superhero. Hell, Ant-Man only made $180 million domestic. But keep in mind, in 2009 the summer blockbuster season didn't start in effing March, and there weren't four comic book films, two Disney adventures, and the Angry Birds to contend with. When The Hangover just barely won the weekend against Pixar's Up in its second week, the rest of the top ten was littered with three-week old sequels and reboots, but they were decidedly more stale ones like Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and Terminator: Salvation. You'd be hard-pressed to sell a ticket to anyone over 18 that weekend that wasn't ready for a change of pace.

It's sad that Popstar died on the vine, when it easily might have been embraced if released a few months earlier. Can you imagine a moviegoing public, reeling from the dour Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, seeking out some much-needed levity from trustworthy Andy Samberg and Co.? As a matter of fact, the Warner Bros superhero beat-'em-up film had something like a fifty percent drop-off in its second week, which was the weekend of April 1. Had Universal put Popstar on the April 1 weekend, it would be competing with a mere $50 million from Bats and Supes, and the only new release of note was Christ-sploitation sequel God's Not Dead 2. I can say confidently that Popstar would have at least managed a $9 million opening with those surroundings. Which isn't very impressive, but when you consider that the film made around $9 million total, it sounds a hell of a lot better.
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