Is pop stardom fascism? Is the glitzy parade of egocentric personality-worship a distant cousin to dictatorship? Maybe not, but for one moment of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’s 80-minute duration we’re gulled into thinking these questions matter to a madcap, joke-a-second takedown of pop music and its overprivileged stewards: We glimpse the cover of the fictitious album that drives the film’s action by dint of sheer awfulness, and we see its star, Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), positioned at its center, his hand held straight and aloft in an unwitting evocation of history’s greatest tyrant. It’s impossible to mistake the reference for anything other than what it is, but the gag is just one in Popstar’s comic artillery.
Like so much of the film’s rapid-fire parody, this particular bit of visual tomfoolery doesn’t last long enough to make an impression on either the audience or the story, such as it is; its life cycle begins and ends in the time it takes to move on to the next scene. Still, the punch line does its job and leaves us laughing even if there’s nothing else to say about it, which is pretty much all that Popstar needs to do to earn its keep. The film is a joint effort by The Lonely Island, the comedy threesome of Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. As features like Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber’s Believe are to their stars, so is Popstar to Conner, a spoiled, dimwitted manchild and global superstar who rose to fame with his pals Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) as The Style Boyz, a foul-mouthed and nerdy outfit that recalls NSYNC by way of Beastie Boys and MC Paul Barman.
In the film’s present, Conner has gone solo with Owen in tow and Lawrence left in the dust. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve pretty much seen the film: a rise-fall-rise narrative where Conner tastes the bitter side of the music business and has to face up to his ego and settle the rift his departure from the band has put between him and his chums. Oh, it’s willfully absurd and endlessly stupid in the best ways possible, too. That’s important. You’re not watching Popstar for an insightful glimpse into Conner’s ennui leading into his emotional. You’re watching it to hear classically vulgar Lonely Island tunes and watch Samberg act a fool, a gleeful smile spread across his mug all the way.
Popstar marks the second time the group has spun a feature out of whole cloth together; the last time they did, they made Hot Rod, the unloved child that became a cult hit on the back of its unabashed weirdness and Samberg’s knack for taking abuse. (Search YouTube for the clip where he riffs on Footloose before falling down a mountain for forever. It’s a stunner.) Hot Rod feels like an anomaly for a trio of goofy white dudes obsessed with the intersection where pop meets rap. Popstar might be the film that they’ve been brewing in their minds since 2007, or maybe even 2005. Think of it as the culmination of their love for pop culture excess and slick, bumping production. Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer have an innate gift for mimicking music styles and skewering industry mores, so it’s a great surprise that that gift translates unevenly to a feature stage. Popstar should be a better film than it is.
Make no mistake: It’s amusing at worst and riotous at best, especially in concert scenes bent around new Lonely Island tracks like “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” whose basic conceit is so unmitigatedly bawdy that giving it away here would be close to criminal, and in its cavalcade of celebrity cameos, from Questlove to Usher to, of course, Justin Timberlake, who plays Conner’s twitchy personal chef with hysterical precision. The satire is obvious, and the overarching joke is that our pop music gods are dopes with inflated heads, and that the music they make is disposable once you pick apart the words. Try this: Listen to a Lonely Island track and tune out Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer as they rap verse to verse. You’ll find your head bopping to the beat, unfussed by the lyrics. Listen to the track again and pick up on what is said. You’ll start laughing like a loon because that’s the goal of the exercise, but if you do the same thing with the average pop song, you may find yourself cringing instead.
That’s what The Lonely Island has been about for years, and Popstar is no different, except that it runs its setups into the ground and doesn’t do or say anything new. It is exactly what you expect from The Lonely Island, and not much else. That isn’t a bad thing, either. As a wacky summertime popsicle, you can do worse than Popstar, with its brazen profanity, TMZ mockeries, fantastically shallow characters and escalating ridiculousness. (There’s a truly incredibly dick joke in here that hinges on having an actual dick out on display. Points for evening the nudity disparity between men and women.) But while the film leaves no stone unturned, it never uncovers anything The Lonely Island hasn’t already uncovered. After all, who knew popular music is hollow and soulless pap churned out to make corporations fistfuls of money?
Directors: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Writers: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg
Starring: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Tim Meadows, Sarah Silverman, Chris Redd, Imogen Poots, Joan Cusack, Will Arnett
Release Date: June 3, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.