Review: POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING Affectionately Skewers The Music Biz
“Viral video” is an overused – and very often misused – term, but one group of guys who can genuinely be said to have created some of the best and funniest of these is the comic musical collective known as The Lonely Island.
Consisting of Saturday Night Live performer and writer alums Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, the trio made their name with their series of “Digital Shorts” that ran on Saturday Night Live, and very often proved to be funnier than many of the live sketches on the show. Most of them consisted of music videos built around absurd concepts and juxtapositions, enhanced by very well-produced and catchy songs, as well as the wealth of music star collaborators they were able to corral for these hilarious short films.
The titles of many of these will be familiar to almost anyone who has spent any amount of time on YouTube in the past few years: “Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover,” “I’m On a Boat,” “Jack Sparrow,” “YOLO,” “Jizz In My Pants,” “I Just Had Sex,” the list goes on and on. As impressive as the frequent hilarity of these shorts are is the roster of music stars they’ve collaborated with: Justin Timberlake, Adam Levine, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Pink, Kendrick Lamar, Akon, Michael Bolton, etc. Not bad for three guys who refer to themselves as “fake rappers,” or to use their contraction, “frappers.”
Given the success of these shorts, as well as the three albums they’ve released – Incredibad, Turtleneck & Chain, and The Wack Album – it was inevitable that The Lonely Island would take their silliness to a bigger stage. And so they have, with their first feature, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which I can say with no hyperbole is the funniest film I’ve seen this year.
Co-directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, and co-produced by Judd Apatow, Popstar very smartly plays to their comic strengths, and doesn’t tweak their formula all that much, other than offering a bigger, splashier version of their previous work, with all the curse words and boobs (as well as a penis in a key scene) that they couldn’t employ on network television.
Popstar takes the form of a music mockumentary, the logical extension of the music-based humor The Lonely Island have mined so fruitfully in the past. So I guess it doesn’t go too far to say that millenials now have their own This Is Spinal Tap. This is not to say that Popstar will necessarily go down in film history as a classic on the order of Spinal Tap; to the contrary, Popstar gives the initial impression of being ultimately as disposable as the pop music it very affectionately skewers. However, this doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable or less worthy of recommendation as a wonderful way to spend about 90 minutes of your time.
Popstar, from its very title down to its structure, takes aim at the music superstar documentaries put out in the past few years by such figures as Justin Bieber (whose film Never Say Never seems to be the most direct inspiration, at the very least a titular one), Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and One Direction. Many of these films purport to give us an intimate, behind the scenes look at their subjects, but really they are usually as much a calculated, promotional product as their subjects’ music. Popstar follows its subject, Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), just as he’s experiencing a Justin Bieber or Britney Spears-like public meltdown.
Conner, whose stage name is a hipper spelling of his real last name Friel, was the front man for the group the Style Boyz – a cross between the Beastie Boys and the Backstreet Boys – which also consisted of his childhood friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). This group was wildly popular, with such big hits as “Karate Guy” and “Donkey Roll.” (Usher himself talks in the documentary about how he was one of their biggest fans.)
However, Conner was the clear star of the group, and developed a massive ego as a result. Eventually, he broke up the Style Boyz and ventured out as a solo act. Owen stayed with Conner and became his back-up DJ, while Lawrence quit the music business altogether to become a farmer, while resentfully harboring murderous thoughts toward Conner.
Conner’s first album, “Thriller, Also,” was a big success, and the documentary being made in Popstar follows him during his tour to support his follow-up album, “CONNquest.” However, Conner’s now having a rougher time of it, enduring savage critical reviews (a negative rating on Pitchfork and a poop emoji in lieu of stars from Rolling Stone), and a disastrous promotional campaign that places the new album in household appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines (a send-up of U2’s invasive iTunes release of their last album).
Faced with waning album sales and popularity, Conner’s manager Harry (Tim Meadows), adds an opening act to Conner’s tour, Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), an unhinged Odd Future-type rapper, who very quickly becomes more popular than the headlining act. Spinning in emotional turmoil, Connor has a very public meltdown, which sees him speeding dune buggies and drunkenly falling asleep on a moving hoverboard. Owen comes up with the idea of trying to engineer a Style Boyz reunion to save the day, and just has to solve the tiny problem that Lawrence still wants to kill Conner.
There’s much more that happens in the film, but it would be criminal for me to reveal much more, since the surprise cameos and story developments are a huge part of the fun of this film. As are the songs – and Popstar is chock full of them, and they follow The Lonely Island’s established tradition of funny, catchy, and completely absurdist ideas rapped and sung with gusto.
For example, there’s Conner’s “I’m So Humble,” in which he definitely isn’t; “Equal Rights,” a Macklemore-type “socially conscious” rap in favor of the right of gay people to marry, all the while constantly reminding us that he’s most definitely not gay. (Also, one commentator points out that since gay marriage is now legal in the U.S., he’s a bit late to come out with a protest song about this issue.) In addition, there’s “Bin Laden,” Conner’s idea of a tender love song, and “Mona Lisa,” which viciously attacks the art icon.
Popstar certainly makes fun of the music business, and especially how the pervasiveness of social media affects how musicians behave and how the audience sees them, but instead of delivering slings and arrows, The Lonely Island are giving the biz more like gentle love taps. This is probably reflected in the many, many music star cameos that appear in the film, like Usher, 50 Cent, Adam Levine, Pink, DJ Khaled, A$AP Rocky, to name just a few.
To name them all would not only give away some fun surprises, but would probably double the length of this review. The film mostly saves its viciousness toward the likes of such bottom-feeding celebrity reporter outfits as TMZ (here called CMZ), who function here as a cackling Greek chorus, commenting on Conner’s latest outrageous exploits.
Popstar is a film made by people who clearly have affection for, and are fans of, the sort of pop music – and the weird behavior that surrounds it – that they are sending up. If this is satire, then it is that of the most loving and non-threatening kind. But it’s all too easy to be vicious and mean; The Lonely Island come up with something much warmer, and funnier, for this very impressive debut movie effort.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens in theaters June 3.