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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping captures the absurdity and fun of the music business

It’s the perfect Grammys palate cleanser.

Ever since I was born, I was dope.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for February 11 through 17 is Popstar (2016), which is available to stream for Cinemax subscribers and digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

When Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping came out last June, it bombed at the box office but still garnered critical praise: “It’s a celebration of the curious authenticity — the innocence, the sweetness, the guiltless pleasure — of music whose badness is sometimes hard to separate from its genius,” A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review.

Badness and genius, indeed. Popstar — created by Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg, a.k.a. the Lonely Island — is a mockumentary that takes its inspiration from real life and skewers in all the best ways the absurdities of music superstardom. It’s ultimately more spoof than satire; as Scott notes, its primary mode is revelry and pleasure.

Which means the week following the Grammys is the perfect time to catch up with this hidden musical comedy gem. Music’s biggest awards show happens on Sunday night, which means the evening’s performances, upsets, and embarrassments will be a big part of the pop culture conversation for at least a few days — and Popstar offers a hilarious lens through which to view that conversation.

Andy Samberg as Conner4Real in Popstar
Andy Samberg as Conner4Real in Popstar.

Popstar builds its story around Conner (Samberg) and his friends Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone), who once formed a popular and influential rap group called the Style Boyz. All was gold, till ego clashes led to their breakup, with Conner evolving into a solo act called “Conner4Real” and Owen serving as his nearly invisible DJ. (Lawrence moves away to take up a peaceful but depressing life of farming and whittling.) After a disastrous sophomore album sinks Conner’s solo career, he and his team flail to mastermind a comeback, preferably one that doesn’t involve the Style Boyz reunion everyone but the egotistical Conner seems to want.

In telling this story, Popstar exhibits an intimate familiarity with the absurdity and cluelessness behind much pop music marketing and image crafting. For example, one of the film’s funniest bits comes when Conner’s manager suggests that his next tour should be sponsored by an appliance manufacturer. His music is programmed into appliances from refrigerators to ovens, which eventually causes a mass power outage and attendant outrage. (Turns out having music play from inanimate objects isn’t quite as good an idea as it might seem, as Katy Perry found out this week.)

There’s more to fame than product placement, though: The film also follows Conner as he endures wardrobe malfunctions, a botched proposal/publicity stunt, and appearances on The Tonight Show, all in an attempt to gin up his popularity.

But it’s only when Conner comes back together with the Style Boyz that he realizes making music is about celebrity and fame, yes, but it’s also about just having fun with your friends. The pop music machine can chew up and spit out stars; being grounded in the music, not just the performance, keeps the music alive.

The group’s reunion finally takes place at a Grammys surrogate called the Poppy Awards — with special guest Michael Bolton (yes, that Michael Bolton), which incidentally foreshadows their Netflix special out this Valentine’s Day — and by then, we’ve run the full gamut of absurdity mixed with outright pop music awesomeness. (The soundtrack to Popstar is absurdly catchy.) Which is just about what the Grammys serve up every year: celebrity, fame, unexpected stunts, sparkle, and, always, some great music. Popstar knows it’s silly — but it also knows it’s great fun.

Watch the trailer for Popstar: