Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping just might be the dumbest movie of the summer — which, in spite of how it sounds, is an absolute compliment.
From the punch drunk minds of the Lonely Island — the comedy trio made up of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer — Popstar brings a giddy jolt of earnest enthusiasm to the mockumentary genre, even as it gleefully tears celebrity culture a new one.
The movie opens on teen idol turned egomaniac nightmare Conner4Real (Samberg), who's convinced a documentary crew to chronicle his awesome life as he drops his newest album, Connquest. Unbeknownst to Conner, though, everything is about to come crashing down around him. It's as if the 2011 Justin Bieber tour documentary Never Say Never had kept rolling past the singer's tour to capture all his subsequent tantrums and oblivious clashes with the law.
Like any Lonely Island production, Popstar contains tons of cameos, pop culture references, and left-turn jokes as Conner steadily makes his way to rock bottom. But clocking in at just 86 minutes long, it isn’t out to change the world. It’s just here to make you laugh, with as many hilariously horrifying dance numbers and well-placed dick jokes as possible.
The Lonely Island's brand of comedy is a natural fit for the story of a pop star meltdown
Drawing from the storied history of music docs and histrionic celebrity meltdowns, Popstar tells a simple but familiar tale: A pop star achieves astonishing success, loses everything, learns a lesson, and then joins forces with perpetually brow-furrowing crooner Michael Bolton to sing a duet about saving the world with the power of his incredible mind.
You know. The usual.
But on his way to enlightenment — or something at least adjacent to enlightenment — Conner tanks both his career and his relationships with his childhood best friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), who also happened to be two-thirds of the musical trio ("Style Boyz") he left behind as he ascended to solo stardom. Now, as "Conner4Real," he's surrounded by sycophants and encouraged to embrace his worst impulses, with disastrous and hilarious results.
Conner's Icarian trajectory aligns perfectly with the Lonely Island's unique approach to comedy, which tends to combine seemingly nonsensical punchlines with sharp jokes about entitlement. As longtime contributors to Saturday Night Live, the group has found mainstream fame by producing dozens of smart, openly bizarre digital shorts — the "Dick in a Box"es and "I'm on a Boat"s that have become a staple on the show and racked up millions of hits online. In fact, in a brilliant bit of movie marketing synergy, this year's season finale of SNL even featured the music video for Conner4Real's "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)."
Unfortunately, in Popstar the song isn't accompanied by a music video — it's just a part of Conner's set list. And while it and the rest of the songs the Lonely Island wrote for the film are just as sharp and winking as ever, there's something lost in translation between their music videos — which can tell the full story of a song in fantastically funny visual details — and the spectacle of Conner4Real's hyperbolic stadium tour. There's so much happening onstage between the backup dancers, Conner's stunts, and sporadic Adam Levine holograms (sure!) that the lyrics and the nuance get a little lost in the performance.
Still, in making Popstar, Samberg, Taccone, Schaffer, and producer Judd Apatow clearly did their homework in researching the genre of music documentaries. Under Taccone and Schaffer's joint direction, Popstar's behind-the-scenes dive into Conner's extravagant home life and shitshow tour is Bieber by way of Spinal Tap.
Between Conner's entourage, fans, and rivals, there are so many fantastic guest turns that it's hard to pick favorites. But Tim Meadows is especially good as Conner's dry and deliberately confusing manager, as are Sarah Silverman as his no-bullshit publicist and Joan Cusack as his hard-partying mom. Also Usher and Nas as Style Boyz fanboys. Oh, and Mariah Carey as the world's humblest person. And — well, I'll stop there, but you get the idea.
Outside of the happy shock that comes with so many cameos, some of Popstar's biggest laughs fittingly arise when the movie lets the Lonely Island do what they do best. The movie is packed with their signature satirical songs, which range from the Style Boyz's nostalgic hits ("Do the Donkey Roll!") to Conner4Real's incredibly tone-deaf attempts to be edgy ("Fuck me like the US government fucked Bin Laden!") or accepting (in "Equal Rights," the refrain is a defensive, "I'm not gay!").
And when the comedy has celebrity culture in its crosshairs, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is just about unstoppable.
The movie presents an incisive and damning view of celeb culture, even if it feels a little dated
Samberg's Conner is misguided and goofy and endearing all at once, but the Bieber of it all quickly starts to feel a little stale, thanks to the rapid pace of celebrity gossip; that particular kind of pop star meltdown isn't nearly as ubiquitous now as it was even just a couple of years ago when Bieber was fighting his downward spiral.
That's why the smartest aspect of Popstar's approach to its subject matter is the way it almost makes Conner4Real irrelevant as it digs into the grit of the entertainment business propping him up.
All the elements of modern stardom are on display: Conner broke out of his boy band to become not just a solo act but a product. And people like Meadows's placating manager and Silverman's cut-and-dried publicist are all too eager to sell Conner4Real to the screaming masses, convincing him to go bigger, brighter, more ridiculous — whatever it takes to make a profit. That is, of course, until his overconfidence starts to backfire and his opening act, Hungry Hunter (the very energetic and funny Chris Redd), starts to outshine him.
Lest I make it sound like Popstar becomes a somber meditation on What It Means to Be Famous and the Dangers of Hero Worship, don't worry. The movie isn't lacking for jokes or tangents that will quickly make you realize that even if the subject is familiar, you probably don't have a clue where it's going.
The action sometimes cuts to the cackling reporters at "CMZ" — a clear and hyper-accurate take on TMZ's TV show — as they happily rip Conner to shreds. We also get snippets from Conner's vlog, where he brings fans into the most personal aspects of his life; on any given day, they could be anything from an ode to his beloved turtle Maximus to a look at the backstage "pranks" he pulls that usually end with someone in incredible pain to a sleepy grin filmed 30 seconds after "jacking it."
Meanwhile, Lawrence, who retreated to a farm after feuding with Conner, occasionally shows us his awful amateur woodworking projects, blinking at the camera like he's waiting to get his mug shot taken.
But even while Conner keeps proving the stunning depths of his immaturity, and his songs become strings of nonsense words set to a thumping EDM beat, Popstar is deceptively smart and satisfyingly weird. It never takes itself too seriously, throwing our own fascination with celebrity back in our faces with a huge, infectious grin.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is now out in theaters nationwide.