Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

pnsnsOkay, so, first off, this is a hard R comedy. If you’re not down with nudity (female and male) and non-stop foul language, hop off this train immediately. Secondly, this is kind of a hybrid review of the soundtrack (to which I was exposed first) and the film (which I watched later).

Popstar is structured like a documentary, and does a nice job maintaining that storytelling device throughout. The story is about Conner, a performer who seems to be Justin Timberlake if he had the emotional maturity of Justin Bieber. Played by Andy Samberg, it’s yet another loveable doofus who doesn’t quite understand his own doofishness.

Conner’s solo career is exploding. He broke away from The Style Boyz, a band made up of him and two childhood friends, Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). When “Kid Conner” became “Conner4Real”, Owen became a yes-man in Conner’s posse, and Lawrence retreated from celebrity to be a farmer. The through-line of the film is Conner realizing that he needs to reconnect with these old friends. They are each the best versions of themselves when they’re together.

What’s fantastic about this film is that the music is really what ties everything together, and the music is great. The punchiest songs, featured in the film’s trailer and in a Samberg appearance on SNL before the film came out, are the ones seemingly written by Conner4Real. They are politically tone-deaf and represent the crassest version of American exceptionalism. Here’s a sample lyric from one of my favorites, “Mona Lisa”, a hilarious riff on how Leonardo’s masterpiece is overrated: “I am an American man, this is my native land where no one lies about paintings. But that’s not the case in France.” In a similar vein, it’s hard not to love the song “Finest Girl”, which cleverly deconstructs the various uses of the F-word in popular culture: “This girl requested intercourse to bring her to climax With the clinical efficiency of the assassination of Bin Laden”

The connection of story and character to the songs goes throughout the soundtrack and film. The solo projects of Conner’s one-time collaborators, “Owen’s Song” and “Things in my Jeep” are ridiculous (and ridiculously funny) in different ways. It becomes clear that when they get together again, the result will be phenomenal. This is the song “Incredible Thoughts”, complete with vocals from Michael Bolton.

What’s nice about these songs from The Lonely Island (the band name of Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer) is that they eschew their normal format, wherein there is some sort of confusion or drama within the song, as if it was recorded live with no edit. Here, the songs are fully formed. There is the small problem that in the universe of the film, some songs are “great” and others are “terrible”, despite the fact that, to me, the listener in the real world, they are all equally strange and equally enjoyable. But that’s a minor quibble.

Toss in some great supporting performances (Tim Meadows, in particular, shines) and a ton of musician cameos (props to Seal), and this film works remarkably well.

Grammy Nominations

Much of the aegis of the Academy of Whoever Does the Grammys I have no frame of reference for. I do not like country, rap or R&B, by and large. OTOH, I’ve been listening to a larger than usual amount of pop music lately, so when I saw the list of Best Record nominees, I said to myself, “Hey! Here’s something I can review that will generate no comments!” Which is the goal, of course.

Rather than do this in order of my preference, I’m going to do the reviews in order of chronology. Not when the songs were recorded, when the songs sound like they were recorded:

gl1970s — “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk is a love letter to disco. If I loved disco, maybe I would like this ridiculously repetitive song more. As it stands, snore.

looh1980s — “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars feels like a rejected track from Synchronicity. And all that that implies.

bl1990s — “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke I’m sure has roots in some sort of R&B classics, but to me it just sounds like mediocre Prince.

rid2000s — “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons is easily my favorite of the bunch. The buzzy digital sounds and the angsty, post-9/11 message resonate with me.

rl2010s — “Royals” by Lorde is the only song here that really feels “of the moment”. Both the sound and the message are truly topical. A fun listen.

Entertainment Weekly 100 All-Time Greatest Issue

Yeah, I know “All-Time Greatest” lists are a dime a dozen. But I like EW’s editorial style and (mostly) their critical slant. (No, Buffy isn’t that good.) So, I wondered how my personal tastes line up with theirs.

Stage — For this category, they picked the 50 greatest plays of the last 100 years. (Presumably, they knew they couldn’t stuff the last ten pages of their magazine with a medium that, like, 10% of the population care about.) Of these 50 plays, I’ve seen only one performed (“Death of a Salesman”), seen movie versions of two others (“Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Odd Couple”), read two (“Waiting for Godot” and “A Raisin in the Sun”) and actually performed in one (“Our Town”). My knowledge of great theater, it seems, is somewhat limited.

Music — I’m way out of touch on this one. I only have four of their album selections in my library. (“The White Album”, “Graceland”, “Abbey Road” and “Achtung Baby”)

Books — I’ve only read 17 of their 100 greatest books. This troubles me. You know, what with me being, like, a writer, and stuff.

TV — This one is tough to count up. I think I’ll count a show as “seen by me”, not if I’ve ever seen an episode (because it’s easy to accidentally catch shows you don’t really want to see), but if I made a concerted effort to either catch them in syndication, or watch the bulk of a season, either during its run or on home video. I won’t subject you to a list, since I count a full half of the shows as ones I’ve seen at least somewhat regularly. (Also, somehow, Fawlty Towers did not make this list. This is an oversight of staggering proportions.)

Movies — Well, I whonk on this blog more about movies than anything else. How many of the 100 greatest (as chosen by EW) have I seen? Only 45! Wow. I guess the fact that Transformers isn’t on there hurts my numbers. (Also, just for grins, I counted how many of these films I actually own. 20 of them. Actually, not bad.)

So, either I’m more of a TV buff than a movie buff, or I just synch up with EW’s TV critics more. Who knows?

Bond Songs: The 10s (so far)

sfThere’s only been one Bond film so far this decade, the excellent Skyfall. For the theme this time around they hired Adele. (Yes, I refuse to write her name in all caps. Sue me.) I’m not a huge fan of hers, but she can certainly sing. There’s nothing particularly new about this song. Same Bondian horns, same undercurrent of strings, same tune that sounds mildly familiar the first time you hear it. My favorite thing about it is how the lyrics have additional meaning after you see the film. “We will stand tall/Face it all together/At skyfall.” Nice.

Okay, I’m done now.

Well, until I decide to review all these films’ cinematography, or something.

Bond Songs: The Aughts

We’ve arrived at the Decade Without a Name in our tour of Bond songs.

dad“Die Another Day” – New decade, new genre. Madonna turns this song into a pure dance number. Choppy editing and judicious use of silence, not to mention heavily effected voices and instruments turns this into a unique entry in the series. Some of the nostalgia elements are still there (melodramatic strings and brass stabs), but they’re used to serve the overall song, as opposed to being the point of the song like the previous two entries. “I’m gonna avoid the cliche.” Indeed.

cr“You Know My Name” – Remember back in 1987 when the last guy sang a Bond song? Time for Chris Cornell to take a shot at it, which nicely underscores the rougher, more manly take on the role brought by Daniel Craig. “Casino Royale” wouldn’t make a particularly evocative title, so we get this not-so-oblique reference to the fact that James Bond’s name recognition keeps this series going on much longer than logic suggests it could. For this song, the Bondian brass section holds an equal place with the driving late 90s style guitars and production. Lyrically, this is very interesting entry in the series because it’s the first to be from Bond’s perspective and shows a little bit of vulnerability: “Arm yourself because no one else here will save you. The odds will betray you…” That’s also a subtle reference to the gambling theme of the film, along with “Try to hide your hand, forget how to feel.” Since this film is a reboot, it makes sense to put a little hesitancy into Bond before he finally realizes that “the coldest blood runs through my veins.”

qos“Another Way to Die” – For the first time, we get a duet. Jack White (showcasing his chainsaw guitar licks) and Alicia Keys (bringing the first hint of hip-hop to the series) sing a super cynical song about the dangerous life that Bond lives. Instrumentally, the song is reminiscent of “Live and Let Die”, and has that same dangerous quality. Overall the music is interesting, but a little eccentric for me.

Bond Songs: The 90s

After a long (six year) hiatus and the departure of the much reviled (though I thought he was pretty awesome) Timothy Dalton, the guy who was born to play Bond finally had the role. Welcome, Pierce Brosnan. We hope you enjoy your stay.

ge“Goldeneye” – The remarkable overall trend of hiring women who can belt out a tune continues with Tina Turner behind the mic to start off the 90s. The title, again, makes zero sense. But at least the song doesn’t try to explain it. Now we’re firmly in the arena of nostaglia with more punchy horn section samples and strings doing a sort of overwrought, super-obvious version of what they did in the 60s. The lyrics seem strangely divorced from the story: “You’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child. You’ll never know how it feels to be the one who’s left behind.” Huh? Still, this is memorable and fun entry.

tnd“Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow is a good singer for what she does, but she seems a little overmatched to perform a Bond song. Twangy guitars, muted piano chords, and McCartneyesque strings make this another nostalgia entry. This is the most violent of all the songs to date. The first line sets up the danger: “Darling, I’m killed.” This time around, the woman understands the danger Bond puts her in, but she just can’t help herself. An overreaction to the feminist 70s and the cynical 80s? Maybe.

twine“The World Is Not Enough” – I’m going out on a limb and say that Shirley Manson is the best songtress in the Bond ouvre. She’s equally good at the quiet, sultry verses and the brash choruses. By this time, the nostalgia has taken over the arrangement, and there’s really nothing except production value and the percussion to place this song in the late 90s. This is also best of the “villain portait” songs, perfectly capturing the megalomania and sultriness of Elektra King. I particularly love the use of an important snippet of dialogue from the film: “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.” This is one of the best Bond songs there is.

That decade went by fast, didn’t it?

Bond Songs: The 80s

Welcome to the 1980s in our trip through the songs of the James Bond films. Let’s get right to it!

fyeo“For Your Eyes Only” – Here we have a perfect title for a love song. So it’s a new era, let’s get a new singer! Sheena Easton was the newest of new hitmakers at the time, and she nailed the performance of this torchy song. The producers also realized she was hot, so, for the first time (and only time to date), they featured her in the opening title sequence. Musically, we can see the uneasy transfer from sappy late-70s to tech-heavy-early-80s, with the atmospheric piano and the subtle synthesizer riffs. (Sorry, no brass this time around.) Presaging the simple, optomistic 80s, this is a nonironic love song. Either James Bond really reformed his character during the 70s, or this woman doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. But, even with all of that, this is a great song. In the ballad category, “For Your Eyes Only” just barely edges out “Nobody Does it Better” as the best in the series.

op“All Time High” – For the first time the title of the film makes no appearance in the song. (Imagine Shirley Bassey belting out a song called “Octopussy”. Go ahead. I dare you.) Rita Coolidge takes us back about ten years with a song that could have been produced in 1975. Oh, enough with the emotional strings and the eccentric guitars. And a saxophone? Yikes! This is Bond! We don’t want reeds, we want horns? There’s not really much to say about the lyrics. This is easily the least impressive of all the songs in the series.

avtak“A View to a Kill” – It took the producers until 1985 to realize that they were in the 80s. They got Duran-Duran to make a song that really sounds like a Duran-Duran song. Now, if you don’t like this sort of antiseptic, synthetic 80s music, you’ll probably hate “A View to a Kill.” But I love it. Sampled horns! Drum machines! Little bouncy guitar riffs! Lyrics that make no sense! “Dance into the fire. To fatal sounds of broken dreams. That fatal kiss is all we need. Dance into the fire, when all we see is the view to a kill.” Plenty of dangerous imagery without the baggage of actual meaning. Greatness!

tld“The Living Daylights” – That poppy British band did a pretty good job on the last one. How about we hire a poppy Norwegian band this time. Same punchy, sawtooth guitars. Even punchier orchestra hits. Even more androgynous male singer. Once again, they made a song using the title of the film that doesn’t really mean anything, but hints at menace: “Living’s in the way we die.” Even the introduction of a new Bond (Timothy Dalton) doesn’t really impact the musical choices.

ltk“License to Kill” – Gladys Knight does what she can with this song, but it doesn’t amount to much. For the first time, the music starts to sound less like a lazy throwback, and more like an homage. The opening brass stabs evoke the Bond mythology, but of course, don’t go anywhere. The bulk of the song is a mushy R&B effort that frames the woman as the one with the “license to kill” to protect her love. That’s a nifty kind of reversal, but it doesn’t gel into anything memorable.

So much for the 80s. What a hit-or-miss decade!