Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping seems like a box-office poison title until you see the nerve and verve with which this pop-music mockumentary is laced. Its subtitle is the first of many carotid-hungry barbs launched at Justin Bieber (tweaking his Never Say Never concert film title). But it also suggests an often overwhelming obligation to a hellish hustle — an endless, tail-eating hurly-burly egged on by nagging insecurity, image-chasing and instantaneous commentary on every choice made by someone famous — not just in a Kafka-meets-Gaga sense but across the entire pop-culture experience of 2016.
Here’s a movie that gleefully sends up the swipe-left disposability of something – or, more to the point, someone – the second it disappoints us, the perils of noshing too often on nostalgia, how the less sophisticated among us treat others’ art as though it could be customized to our exact specifications and much, much more. A la the original Zoolander, it’s also superficially poking at the vain vapidity of our pop purveyors. Is a joke about literally shitting in Anne Frank’s toilet more outrageous than Bieber’s real-life hope that she would have been a “belieber”? No, but Popstar certainly doesn’t suffer for the stranger-than-fiction comparison – firmly establishing itself as the best effort in years to which producer Judd Apatow has attached his name (and, if stories are true, something … else).
Popstar could have just updated 2007’s genial but safe Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (a biopic spoof also produced by Apatow). Instead, it represents an incisively hilarious leap into long-form, music-driven narrative for the Lonely Island — the piss-take triumvirate of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone whose humor fits as naturally inside 87 minutes as in their three-minute sweet spots of perfectly produced pop parodies (“I’m On a Boat,” “YOLO”) or Saturday Night Live digital shorts (“Dick in a Box,” “Jack Sparrow”). All three of them co-wrote and co-star in the film, with Schaffer and Taccone splitting directorial duty. (It’s their first as a trio since 2007’s Hot Rod.)
Eleven years ago, the Lonely Island dropped its leadoff single, “Lazy Sunday,” a sort of stoner-scribble stream of conscious not that dissimilar from “serious” pop hits that helped revive interest in SNL and became patient zero for viral video. The Lonely Island also happen to be dick-joke ninjas, and Popstar easily has the best one in a movie since Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But their métier and milieu amount to much more than nerdy white rappers behind whom bros can rally. Their best stuff satirizes notions of machismo and masculinity — and their attendant insecurities and mundanities — as sharply as it does the pop-music medium, and the entirety of Popstar unloads on both as well as any of the Lonely Island’s songs. The trio may have moved from second-half SNL scraps to polished headliners, but they’re hardly resting on their laurels.
The group’s believable bond as buddies — and the comparative visibility / popularity of one over the others — bleeds into their surrogate roles in Popstar and helps feed what works about its story. In sweet home videos (which get extra points for proper pre-HD aspect ratios), we see lifelong friends Conner (Samberg), Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) channel a love of music into the Style Boyz – a rap trio popular for harmless, daffy novelties like “Karate Guy” (sample lyric: “I like to kick it”) and “Donkey Roll,” a hopelessly white-bread piece of choreography that Usher, with perfect deadpan, says inspired him to dance.
But much in the way Samberg has become the Lonely Island’s face, Conner’s fame eclipses his fellow Style Boyz. His solo star goes supernova when he becomes Conner4Real (a portmanteau of Conner Friel, a perfectly suburban name) and releases his mega-platinum debut album, Thriller, Also. Soon, Conner’s posse shifts to bobble-headed sycophants too selfish to steer him from dumb decisions, and production-design details of his excess prove perfect. (Conner’s iPhone 6S Plus? Definitely rose gold.)
While Popstar earns its R rating (the MPAA descriptor “graphic nudity” lives up to its code for “penis”), it avoids a trap of unnecessary mean-spiritedness that snared Zoolander 2 earlier this year. Samberg and company conceive Conner more as a clueless dolt than a calculating dick — an amiable composite of Bieber, Macklemore and longtime Lonely Island pal / partner Justin Timberlake, whom you just know will turn up somewhere but will still have fun waiting to spot. (Also, Popstar is finally the one movie in which Apatow’s Hollywood connections yield a smattering of random cameos that actually pays off.)
Meanwhile, chaffed at getting the shaft on credit for Conner’s historic verses (which are really just hashtag-chasing gibberish), Lawrence has retired to a Colorado farm where sour grapes are his bumper crop. Owen has stayed on as Conner’s DJ, but his contributions are confined to a one-touch iPod with enough storage for the live show’s music “and some dope audiobooks.”
With his sophomore album, CONNquest, about to drop, Conner seems prepared for the ubiquity his publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman) craves; “I want him to be everywhere, like oxygen, gravity or clinical depression,” she says. But then the reviews roll in (a -4 from Pitchfork, a shit emoji from Rolling Stone), an insidious release strategy backfires (a fine dig at U2’s iTunes folly) and Conner’s live audience dwindles. That’s just the beginning of a precipitous downfall, in which he’s shunted to the side on tour by ambitious opener Hunter the Hungry (a very funny Chris Redd) and pushed to bury the hatchet with Lawrence and dig up the Style Boyz’s corpse.
Popstar is stuffed from front to back with on-point parody befitting the best of the Lonely Island: the clueless braggadocio of “I’m So Humble” (“I poo-poo it when girls say that I should model / My belly’s full from all the pride I swallow”); the hilariously specific sexual innuendo of “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” which may seem exaggerated only if you haven’t “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You),” which is not another Lonely Island song but an Enrique Iglesias hit; the Castilian comedy of “Ibitha”; and the befouled stream of consciousness of “Incredible Thoughts.” It’s also powered by stealthy supporting turns both obvious (longtime SNL MVP Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager, who long ago wound up on the wrong side of a group split) and surprising (Imogen Poots, as Conner’s girlfriend, is as genuinely comic as she was feral in Green Room).
Plus, it draws laughs in ways just as subtle as they are sophomoric. Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone aren’t going to lose any famous friends over Popstar, but their hugs may carry less sincerity next time around. Conner’s song “Equal Rights” realizes that such social-issue music sometimes reinforces more stereotypes than it purports to raze. The TMZ jabs approach the perfect level of absurdity and sobering familiarity. Conner’s vernacular of synergistic strategies — like “In an effort to reset the media cycle” and “To minimize growing backlash” — plays out in transitional intertitles. His follower count trumps almost any other number that lacks a dollar sign, and crowd-sourced ideas gain more credence with him than those from his closest confidants. Plus, Schaffer and Taccone frame the camera perfectly during what seems like a pointless debate about whether Conner truly has a penis … until it becomes a focal point for the world stage. To that end, Popstar’s targets only seem easy until you realize how mercilessly it attacks our response to them. “If you don’t sell out,” Conner says, “people will wonder if no one asked you to.”
Third acts are often where sharp edges go to die in sendups like this, but Popstar shrewdly avoids sentimentalizing Conner’s eventual turnaround too much. “When you’re up, don’t be an asshole about it” is as preachy as Popstar gets — suggesting nostalgia is OK if we briefly nerd out for cheesy shit that doesn’t age well and stemming saccharine stuff with one character’s immediate, running commentary on an important decision Conner must make. She’s a real-time blur of bifurcated Twitter opinion made flesh.
Ultimately, Popstar tips more sacred cows than it slaughters, but in a way that absolutely fits the subject matter. This isn’t a satire of the way we live now, but it’s a wise, wicked and funny one of the way we leisure now.