I’ve never seen Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. I haven’t seen any of The Lonely Island’s digital shorts nor have I listened to either of their albums. I don’t watch TMZ. Yet The Lonely Island’s new mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping made me laugh.
That seems like an accomplishment. If your parody movie can make people laugh regardless of whether or not they’ve seen what you’re parodying (or anything from your prior body of work) you’ve at least crafted some solid jokes. I certainly had plenty of “maybe if I was more familiar with what they’re specifically mocking this would seem funnier” moments throughout Popstar. However, I could see past that largely because while the details may have changed the story remains the same: The music industry routinely morphs into a live-action cartoon, and eventually someone comes along to take the piss out of it. It’s the “real life has become so unintentionally funny that we have to turn it into a movie” moment.
Christopher Guest did it in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, released near the height of rock pretension and metal band excess. Now, The Lonely Island have done it with Popstar, featuring Andy Samberg as Connor4Real, a Bieber-esque rapper/singer forced to potentially regroup with his former boy band The Style Boyz (filled out by Lonely Island’s Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, who also co-directed the film) after his solo career takes a dive.
Spinal Top mocked, among other things, the hilariously inept theatricality which had crept into rock shows, and the logistical nightmares presented by byzantine backstage areas. Popstar more or less tells the same kinds of jokes, just updated for the social media generation. For example, during an early concert scene the stage is flooded with so many holograms we barely notice when they continually multiple and take sexually suggestive positions.
Later on in a desperate attempt to seem cool Samberg forces his DJ to wear an insanely large, backbreakingly-heavy Daft Punk-esque helmet which shoots lights so high into the sky it alters flight patterns. There is a crucial, but hilarious costume malfunction at one point, and a general goal to prove that vapid people without a proper sense of perspective and humility are among the easiest targets of satire. See: Connor4Real’s opening song of the film, “Humble,” misunderstands actual humility the same way Alanis Morisette once accidentally misunderstood understood the definition of “irony.”
To be fair, it’s absolutely a low-hanging fruit, but, like I said earlier, pop music routinely warrants/deserves this kind of gut check. The difference is that here in 2016 everyone wants to look like they’re in on the joke. As such, Popstar has a surprisingly long list of cameos in its talking head segments, most of which come down to black rappers/singers (Nas, Usher, 50 Cent, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, RZA, T.I., Pharrell) describing the immense debt they owe to the three white guys in The Style Boyz, which is either a completely believable scenario (because they could be talking about The Beasties Boys) or a straight-faced joke about the implied racial dynamics.
There’s certainly humor to be had from someone like Nas describing how Connor4Real changed his life, but it’s short-lived. Moreover, too much of the film’s exposition is dumped on these real life personalities (including Mariah Carey, Simon Cowell and Ringo Starr) and their wooden line readings. Their comments (along with periodic on-screen text statements) are often used as the connective tissue for the rather thin and mostly predictable plot.
Thankfully, though, whenever the camera is on Samberg (who falls more on the charming side of his charming/irritating scale of performances) or any of the others actors playing fictional characters a half-decent joke is not too far behind. They most definitely swing big, and sometimes they miss. One extended bit of absurdist comedy, for example, involving Connor4Real and his manager (Tim Meadows) fighting a giant bee off-screen feels like it belongs in a completely different movie.
There are also plenty of spot-on, if somewhat obvious takedowns of modern celebrity, such as the near-constant over-sharing some celebs spew out onto social media. All of The Lonely Island-penned songs manage to sound like modern hits which just happen to also be commenting on themselves. Connor’s circus-like tour produces several inspired moments (hint: never direct a spotlight to an upper deck if you’re unsure if the concert sold out), and there is a surprising sweetness to the underlying story about three childhood friends.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not as good and won’t be thought of as a classic years from now, but Popstar is Spinal Tap for the social media generation. It probably works better if you know your modern pop/rap and can catch any Justin Bieber references, but it’s oddly timeless tale of misbehaving, clueless celebrities produces plenty of inherently amusing moments. Be warned: Some of the songs will get stuck in your head.
THE CLOSING CREDITS
During the closing credits, a Lonely Island song called “Legalize It” starts off like a standard reggae tribute to weed before revealing the mysterious drug the singers had been given was actually cocaine and now they feel invincible but sound insane. It’s not a song which factors into the movie whatsoever, and you only hear a portion of it during the credits. However, the switch from an easy-going “Yah mon” verse to a fevered, coked-out-of-their-minds chorus caught me completely off guard, and had me walking out of the theater laughing.
THE TRAILER WHICH SPOILS ALL THE BEST PARTS
76% – “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping updates the rock mockumentary for the 21st century mainstream — and hits many of its low-hanging targets with side-splitting impact.”