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Review: How to Fail as a Popstar

By Nimra Amir, November 4 2023— 

What happens when you dream of pop stardom but are born in Edmonton? How to Fail as a Popstar, the free limited CBC Gem original series based on artist Vivek Shraya’s hit play with the same name released Oct. 13, answers this exact question with vulnerability, and of course, early 2000s influenced music video segments.

The series set in Edmonton follows young Shraya (Chris D’Silva) through her life as the queer Indian boy at her high school who very quickly discovers through listening to the classic funk mix of “Finally” by CeCe Peniston that her dream is to be a popstar. But when older Shraya (Adrian Pavone) over the next few years of high school tries to get a jumpstart on her music career by winning the Youth Talent Quest at the local mall, she instead gets catapulted down another series of unfortunate events after she meets hotshot producer Matt G (Eric Johnson) who tries to get her to turn her song into Canadian radio rock and then crazy manager Mama Carla (Arwen Humphreys) who insists on foot massages before big meetings. 

In a career spanning over decades, Shraya does whatever it takes to achieve her dreams of pop stardom but on her own terms despite the attempts of people in the industry to pigeonhole her based on her identity with suggestions like wearing leather pants or adding “Eastern flava” to her songs. Shraya gives voice to the fact that if she did not achieve her dreams of pop stardom, it was because of the choices of defiance she made in good faith to herself. In this way, unlike most other shows centred around success stories about how you should follow your dreams until they inevitably come true, How to Fail as a Popstar gives the audience the space to recognize that sometimes you can follow your dreams until they inevitably disappoint you — and that too, is okay. 

This may seem intimidating because of the awkward air that often surrounds conversations about failure, but the series approaches the topic with a certain gentleness through understanding characters like mom Chandrika (Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves) and girlfriend Sabrina (Nadine Bhabha) who cheer on Shraya up until the very end and is grounded through nostalgic visuals of snowy Alberta and typical Canadian high schools. So, while not everyone can relate to this specific failure, the series still opens space for a relatable conversation about failure that makes the experience not seem so scary but instead comforting.

The story, narrated by the trans femme artist that Shraya becomes, takes the audience through this gentle rollercoaster that was her attempt at pop stardom over the decades — and while there is some layer of comedy to the heartfelt story, it does not take away from the more relatable conversation of what it means to fail.

To watch How to Fail as a Popstar, you can visit the CBC Gem website

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