by Andrew Niemann
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (this year’s best title) in different hands could have been an overly long Zoolander clone or perhaps an attempt at doing a Walk Hard style comedy with mild laughs and fun cameos but overall a forgettable final product meant for the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart. Instead, the duo of Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (2/3 of parody pop group The Lonely Island) direct other group member Andy Samberg as well as themselves in a tour de force of music-based parody that reads like a modern update of the classic 1984 Rob Reiner film This Is Spinal Tap. Popstar is indeed a pop-umentary mockumentary that borrows heavily from grandiose 2000s-era theatrical releases such as Katy Perry: Part of Me and, of course, Justin Bieber’s Believe. This film also heavily parodies VH1’s Behind the Music style music documentaries filled with talking heads, played mainly by real life artists.
Popstar primarily follows the exploits of world famous pop artist Conner4Real (Samberg), who is hot on his solo career after the breakup of his original crew, The Style Boyz. Kid Contact (Taccone) remains on tour with Conner as his personal DJ even if his only contribution is playing pre-recorded music from an iPod on stage. The other member, Kid Brain (Schaffer) is jealous of Conner’s solo success at the expense of his sole creative input and resigns himself to living a blue collar life as a farmer. The crux of what makes the film work is that Conner4Real is an absolute monster. He is an unholy combination of the worst traits of Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg, and Macklemore. A great burn against Macklemore comes very early in the film when Conner premieres his video for “Equal Rights,” a song promoting marriage equality both long after marriage equality is legal and also filled with subliminal lyrics assuring the listener that Conner is 100 percent not gay.
Many facets of Bieber’s life are intentionally parodied from Conner’s start as a toddler on drums to taking a dump inside Anne Frank’s house on a tour of Switzerland. What is particularly fascinating about Conner is how insanely likable he is even in the face of his severe monstrousness. This is a testament to Samberg’s acting as well the faux-ness of the documentary making you believe Conner as a living product. Tim Meadows does some career-best work as Conner’s handler Duggins, having to put up with the young star’s incessant bullshit. However, it’s newcomer Chris Redd who steals the show as Tyler, the Creator stand-in Hunter the Hungry. If Conner is this pop world’s Frankenstein’s monster, then Hunter is its Dracula. Hunter is a psychotic prankster that slowly takes over Conner’s tour and leeches off his fame after being asked to open for him due to declining sales. By comparison, he’s essential to the film for making Conner seem more relatable.
Popstar works due to its blistering satire of the music industry as well as its obvious celebration. The major point of conflict lies in Conner being treated as a product instead of an actual creative force. His decline is predicated by his use of stage gimmicks such as holograms and concert magic tricks (one of which goes awry, offering one of the film’s biggest awkward laughs). However, the heart of the movie is in the relationship between Conner and the other Style Boyz. The film takes the position that music is about collaboration, and it takes a village to make an artist as much as it takes an artist to please a stadium.
The movie is not always perfect, however. While some jokes register, many of them fall flat. There are quite a few sketches inserted into the film mostly for padding or to showcase comedian friends of the gang. A recurring TMZ parody sketch starring Will Arnett and a bevy of other popular comedians long outweighs its significance midway through its first appearance. Most egregiously, the film’s female co-stars don’t get much to do. Conner’s publicist, played by an uncharacteristically tame Sarah Silverman, merely serves as a plot device to get a second act depressive Conner off his feet, and she quickly disappears after the fact. Conner’s trippy girlfriend (Imogen Poots) appears for a grand total of three scenes before being written off in a montage. Many other female characters (including Joan Cusack as Conner’s party mom) are relegated to one-off jokes and never really interact with each other. It’s a shame, considering how The Lonely Island have showcased women in other sketches on SNL and beyond.
If you’re a fan of pop music or the musical stylings of The Lonely Island, the group recorded a whole album worth of songs for Conner4Real. They run the gamut from generically nostalgic (“Donkey Roll”) to mildly offensive (“Finest Girl AKA Bin Laden Song”). The coup de grace is a showstopper called “Incredible Thoughts,” which speaks to the group’s incredible wordsmithery, even when working with complete nonsense. Overall, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is an absolute delight and bound to be one of the year’s best comedies.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is now playing.