When it was first announced that comedy trio The Lonely Island was producing a feature-length film, trepidation, maybe even dismay, would not have been an inappropriate reaction. You might think, sure, their three-minute videos are funny enough, but can Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone’s AutoTuned parody songs sustain an hour and a half run time? Do the guys who wrote the lyric “Fuck land, I'm on a boat, motherfucker,” actually know how to tell a story? Do I need another dumb bro-comedy produced by Judd Apatow in my life? Surprisingly, the answer to all these questions would be yes — mostly.
The premise of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is exactly what you would expect from a music biopic, documentary, or, as the case is here, mockumentary. Samberg plays Conner Friel, otherwise known as Conner4Real, otherwise known as the former frontman of the three-man rap group Style Boyz. Popstar begins by tracing the rise of Conner from his early days in Style Boyz to the fight that ultimately tore the group apart. As Conner begins his solo career, Owen (Taccone) decides to stay on as his DJ, and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer) retreats to a life on a farm. The present-day portion of the documentary begins just as Conner4Real is about to drop Connquest, the follow-up to his massively popular debut solo album. As anyone who’s ever seen an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music knows, a quick rise to stardom nearly always ends in broken friendships, inflated ego, and disaster. And that’s exactly what Popstar dishes out.
A quick rise to stardom nearly always ends in broken friendships, inflated ego, and disaster
That familiar formula is a welcoming habitat for the Lonely Island crew’s brand of comedy. It helps that Conner’s worst qualities and moments are transparently inspired by barely-less-ridiculous real-life pop music. At one point, Conner boasts about the fact that he got 100 producers to work on his album. After he discovers EDM, Conner forces Owen to start wearing a light-up mask during shows. He agrees to be sponsored by a smart appliance company so that on the night of his album release, refrigerators and washing machines around the world will automatically start playing his music. ("Nobody is doing appliance shit," one of his lackeys says agreeably). He releases a song about marriage equality, the refrain of which is "I’m not gay." In Popstar, as in many Lonely Island videos, the most masturbatory and self-congratulatory aspects of the music industry are taken to ridiculous extremes.
But the movie is mostly forgiving of the character flaws that come with stardom. It devotes time to the toll that comes with being perpetually in the public eye, feeding on the unpredictable social media cycle of devotion and outrage. After a mishap with Seal, Conner’s fans turn on him, tweeting confused face emoji alongside death threats. Conner sends out poorly lit Snapchats of him curled up in bed. The celebrity website CMZ is populated by wide-eyed, fast-talking bloggers played by Eric Andre, Mike Birbiglia, and Will Arnett, slurping out of ever-larger Big Gulps as they breathlessly dissect Conner’s mishaps of the day.
As fun as Sandberg, Taccone, and Schaffer are, it’s hard to deny that a big chunk of the movie’s appeal comes from its surprise celebrity cameos. Nas, who appears briefly as a hardcore Style Boyz fan, has some of the best lines in the entire movie, and Maya Rudolph is perfectly on point as an overly aggressive appliance salesperson. Popstar understands the sense of familiarity people expect from celebrity cameos, and then cleverly undercuts those expectations.
But make no mistake, Popstar is not a highbrow comedy. There are dick jokes, there’s a barfing turtle, and bird shit is practically used as a metaphor. The movie’s original songs (probably its main draw in the first place) often feel too simple or unfinished. A Conner4Real song that compares the United States military’s murder of Bin Laden to having sex is uncomfortably catchy but brings to mind the sloppy shock humor of Team America. It’s unclear who the butt of the joke is when Conner sings a song in a Spanish accent. The movie’s final performance, set up as a grand finale and big reveal, shoots itself in the foot with its own aggressive weirdness.
Like several Apatow productions before it, Popstar’s third-act shift into sentimentality doesn’t always work, especially after a first half that moves so quickly, stacking one joke on top of the next. Once the film starts dwelling on Conner’s realization that he is a fuck-up, it starts to lag — there are only so many times you can watch a grown man throw a tantrum in his mansion. And while it’s a nice idea that friendship can overcome any obstacles, we aren’t exactly aching for a heartwarming conclusion after enjoying a singing washing machine and an electro-pop song about karate.
Maybe Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer didn’t completely trust that silliness to stand on its own
But it’s hard to not forgive Popstar for its flaws, if only because its ambitions are so inherently silly. One senses that Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer didn’t completely trust that silliness to stand on its own, but it’s only when Popstar reaches for something deeper that it really falters. Some things don’t need overthinking; just an hour or so of the Lonely Island dudes causing chaos in their usual charming way would’ve been enough.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping arrives in theaters on June 3rd.