For years, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer — collectively known as pop song pranksters The Lonely Island — have perfected their craft at writing over-sexed, yet perfectly produced, and remarkably accomplished jams that are too well made to be called novelty, and too layered to be simply labeled as parodies. They’ve roped in artists as wide-ranging as Akon, Michael Bolton, and Julian Casablancas to give their efforts further cred (and laughs), and have poked fun at nearly every corner of popular music. So when it emerged they would take that skillset to a feature length format with “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” it made perfect sense, but also seemed too easy. What can really be said about the vapid, overcooked, and overwrought nature of contemporary music that they haven’t already skewered? How can someone like Justin Bieber be satirized when he pretty much does the job himself? As ‘Popstar’ cleverly reveals, the answer is in not mocking personalities, but the culture as a whole.
Led by Samberg (yes, playing a very Bieber-esque megastar), co-directed by Taccone and Schaffer, and written by all three, the mock-documentary follows Conner4Real, who is on the eve of dropping his new album. Expectations are sky high for the record, and Conner has gone all out, hiring one hundred producers to work on the tracks, releasing a priceless, wrong-headed social justice oriented single, and hoping his fans, known as his Confidantes, will follow along. However, he can’t quite seem to shake the past. Rising to fame as part of the boy band trio The Style Boyz, his split into a solo career wasn’t amicable. While former member Owen aka Kid Contact (Taccone) has ridden with Conner to the top, he’s now relegated to being the DJ, while Lawrence aka Kid Brain (Schaffer) still has some deep-seated static with his former, now super famous friend. Will Conner’s album be a success? Will he patch things up with his best buddies? Since the film follows the rise/fall/rise tropes of the kind of documentary it riffs on, you know the answer, but that doesn’t make the ride any less entertaining.
“Popstar: Never Stop Stopping” succeeds because the plot is a very thin thread that weaves through a comedy that completely knows the milieu its roasting, inside and out. Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer quickly establish everything you need to know about the story, and well aware of the expected beats they have to hit, stuff every single moment getting to each one with sharp, hilarious, absurd and sometimes even surreal bits. The movie works, because the approach is broad. Sure, if you’re savvy about the music world, the jokes that reference everything from Bieber’s visit to the Anne Frank house to U2’s release of Songs Of Innocence to Mark Wahlberg’s early modeling career to Katy Perry’s Left Shark will land with a bit of extra texture. But the writing is so strong, you don’t necessarily need to have that foreknowledge. Unlike some mock biopics or music documentaries that rely on a particular kind of specificity to succeed, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is universally, gloriously stupid. And that’s not a slight — it takes a considerable amount of smarts to make something that so winningly observes the ridiculous facade of the pop music sphere, but gives it a wide-ranging reach.
Also helping in making the film connect is the easy chemistry of the lead trio. By this point, The Lonely Island knows the core strengths of each member (Samberg is the goofball, Schaffer the weirdo, Taccone able to hit the more sensitive notes) and ‘Popstar’ is clearly the product of a comedy team that is arguably working at their peak, their talents honed and interlocking with nothing out of place. And in a way, ‘Popstar’ is also a twisted mirror of their own rise to fame. Samberg, like Conner, has emerged as the “star” of the trio, in a way that his longtime friends and comedy partners haven’t quite achieved. As evidenced by this very film, The Lonely Island don’t suffer from the fracture that frame brings upon Conner and his pals, but there’s no doubt they’re familiar with the terrain, and ‘Popstar’ is served well by that insight.
Running less than 90 minutes, one of the most refreshing things about ‘Popstar’ is that in an era when directors don’t seem to know when to cut comedies, with many running close to two hours, and stuffing gag reels during the credits, The Lonely Island know exactly when to get in, and get out of a joke. And that’s the kind of confidence that comes from believing, and knowing, your material will work. This means that even for the few moments or segments that might not land, there are a few more genuinely laugh-out-loud gutbusters around the corner. Filled front to back with cameo appearances, Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone position each one perfectly, whether it’s Maya Rudolph’s appliance executive or Will Arnett’s extreme Harry Levin-styled TV personality. And there’s also room for breakout talent like Chris Redd, who really brings to life the Tyler, The Creator-esque rapper Hunter The Hungry in what hopefully is a turn that earns him some attention. But making it all work is a comedic concept that doesn’t have one loose piece of armor.
I’ve spent most of this review clearly talking around the particular jokes and plot points, because all of the fun is in just letting The Lonely Island whirl you through their take on the contemporary pop scene. Featuring a new set of terrifically ridiculous songs from the group, and a highly calibrated, delightfully singular comedic punch, ‘Popstar’ deserves to be a chart topper. [B+]