In 2001, Andy Sandberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone formed the comedy trio The Lonely Island, a group specializing in spoof music videos. Three albums later, the trio is making their big screen debut with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a lunatic mockumentary about pop idolatry that takes the music business, shoots it through a kaleidoscope of insanity and manages to create a portrait that feels both absurd and oddly believable all at once.
Samberg stars as Connor, aka Connor4Real, a pop icon riding a wave of success after his first solo album rocketed him to global stardom. The film unfolds as a behind-the-scenes documentary of Connor’s second album tour, Conquest. When the album opens to bad reviews (out of four stars, Rolling Stone gives it a poop emoji), Connor does whatever he can to keep his star from fading out. It’s impossible not to compare Popstar to This is Spinal Tap, and the film takes up the mantle well. It’s undoubtedly more absurd, but then again, so is today’s music industry.
Running a brisk 86 minutes, Popstar is remarkably well paced. Directors Akiva Schaffer (The Watch) and Jorma Taccone (McGruber) know how to keep things moving from set piece to set piece without the whole thing feeling like a jumbled bag of jokes. The script, co-written with Sandberg, may be somewhat nebulous but all the bits resolve back into the main plot. In a film with dozens and dozens of cameos, keeping this kind of focus shows remarkable restraint from Schaffer and Taccone.
The film’s cast is a veritable who’s who of comedy and music, many of them appearing as themselves. Connor surrounds himself with seemingly endless entourage filled with heavy hitters doing great work. Taccone plays Own, Connor’s DJ and best friend, who is growing tired of running Connor’s show off an iPod. Imogen Poots (Green Room) plays Ashley, Connor’s vapid celebrity girlfriend and Tim Meadows (The Ladies Man) does his best work in years as Connor’s manager. The crew is filled out with the likes of Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Joan Cusack. Perhaps the best running gag throughout the film are the cutaways to CMZ, a celebrity show where Will Arnett cracks wise with the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Chelsea Peretti, and Eric Andre while sipping on big gulps.
But a strong supporting cast isn’t worth much if the star of Popstar isn’t much fun to watch. Thankfully, Andy Samberg turns in a career topping performance as Connor4Real. Samberg plays Connor as a man who’s surrounded himself with agreeable sycophants and turned into an overgrown child, embracing the absurdity of the role but giving Connor a genuine sense of pathos. In many ways, Connor is the classic tragic hero. His desire to stay relevant has increasingly disastrous results; one particularly ill conceived publicity stunt ends with Seal getting mauled by wolves. There’s little new about Connor’s character arc, but there doesn’t need to be when played with such panache. Samberg understands what it takes to make a compelling clown – Connor grows throughout the film, but remains at his core, what he’s always been: a beautiful moron.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping delights in the excess and stupidity that has become intrinsic to the music industry as the beats themselves. The Lonely Island packs their debut film with memorable moments and a great, and equally hilarious, original soundtrack. With so much going on, it’s incredible that the whole thing works at all, much less as well as it does. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone prove, once again, that smart and stupid aren’t mutually exclusive, creating a razor sharp sendoff that is as subversively clever as it is funny.