By Ezra Stead
POP-U-larity!, USA, 2012
Directed by Michelle Ehlen
Michelle Ehlen’s POP-U-larity! is a reasonably enjoyable light comedy that satirizes modern singing competition shows such as American Idol and The Voice. It is filled with strange, amusing characters and moments of genuine humor, but unfortunately most of its best material is used up in its first half. By the time the inevitable competition happens, the film and its characters have worn out their welcome and, for the most part, become somewhat grating. More than anything, it feels like an extra low-budget take on Christopher Guest’s largely improvised mockumentaries, such as Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), with the small-town quirkiness of Guffman at the forefront.
POP-U-larity! is at its best in its first act, when it introduces its wildly varied characters and their respective quirks and self-delusions. Ehlen, who also co-wrote the film with J.C. Peterson, stars as the film’s ostensible protagonist, a cowgirl named Charlene Hornsby who feels a deep affinity for one of her horses, Beth; she says of the other horse she tends, “We’re not close.” The writing and delivery of lines like this provides some of the film’s best humor, and many of the scenes involving two other competitors, Darque (Krys Fox) and Ness (Thessaly Lerner), are even better. Performing together as “Darkness,” the two bring a pot-addled, pseudo-nihilistic edge to the competition with their unlistenable melange of noise created by banging on random household objects while shouting a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness rant about the meaninglessness of life over the cacophony. A second act argument between the two of them about their artistic direction is undoubtedly the movie’s best scene.
Where POP-U-larity! bogs down is in the inevitability of its third act, when the various competitors come together to compete in what looks like (and almost certainly is) a high school auditorium, and not a particularly large one at that. Perhaps the underwhelming nature of the competition’s setting is a joke in itself, accentuating the utter lack of weight this contest really holds while juxtaposing the life-or-death approach some of the characters take to it, but the joke falls flat. Another egregious flaw in this third act is the introduction of three new characters – contest judges Louise Perkins (Cinthea Stahl) and Pastor Bill (Peterson), and host Marcellas Reynolds (as himself) – who take up ample screen time while adding little to no humor or interest to the proceedings. Stahl’s performance in particular feels especially clumsy and amateurish, and the overall feeling of the competition itself is somewhat of an endurance test for the viewer.
There are some highlights, though, especially Ness’s solo performance as “the Uke-lady,” with her sidekicks Unicorn (David Monster) and Werewolf (Vinny Markus), and Charlene’s transformation from being too shy to sing in public to proudly belting out a song of her own creation. Narratively, tensions between past competition winner Katrina Whitman (Ashley Cuellar) and her protégé, Sebastian Walker (Chadwick), come to a predictable impasse, but they are clearly the strongest actual singers in the cast, and each get their moment to shine. Cuellar admirably handles the difficult task of convincingly giving an intentionally sub-par performance, and Chadwick simply displays his impressive pipes to great effect, proving that he could probably at least place in a real, larger competition such as Idol or The Voice. Overall, though, the competition is rather hard to watch, and burns up most of the goodwill earned by the film’s promising and frequently very funny first act.
Other than a disappointing third act, the biggest weakness of POP-U-larity! may lie in its relative lack of narrative focus. It is an ensemble film, and there is nothing wrong with that, but some of its various plots are much more strongly pursued than others. The conflict between Darque and Ness, for example, is certainly the most interesting and well-realized, while Charlene’s struggle to overcome her shyness comes to its expected conclusion, but still feels a bit flat and inconsequential. An early hint of a personal history between she and Darque ultimately goes nowhere, and her mentally unbalanced singing coach, Celeste (Betty Ouyang), similarly has what feels like a somewhat unfinished narrative arc. Still, for all its faults, POP-U-larity! is worth a look for its strong performances and genuinely funny moments. It is clearly a very low-budget film that makes the most of its limited resources and a talented but mostly unknown cast, and at its best it is as funny and endearing as the quixotic dreamers it portrays.
For more info on this film, visit: http://pop-u-larity.com/
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.