When a successful pop music artist attempts to cross over into theatrical film, it’s difficult not to view it as a pure vanity project. It’s especially difficult not to view it as such when you witness spectacles like the recent big screen documentaries about bands and singers like The Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, and One Direction, which were largely hated by anyone outside of those groups’ established fanbases, and only seemed to exist as an excuse to sell shoddy music that would become quickly dated.
Seeing as the whole big screen music documentary fad has now been recognized as the farce that it is, it was only a matter of time before some musically-inclined comedians would come along to satirize it. That time is now. Comedy mega-producer, Judd Apatow and Andy Samberg’s musical trio, The Lonely Island have collaborated on a mockumentary movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a movie that exists solely to mock the ridiculous idea of glorifying a fading, self-important musician on the big screen.
As you can imagine with the talent involved, Popstar is also very, very funny, especially if you’re in the loop with the music industry and/or celebrity culture, and can appreciate the huge amount of inspired, subtle and witty commentary on both subjects that goes along with the more outwardly crass gags. The mockumentary style makes the movie pretty methodical, and at worst, it can feel longer than it really is, despite its speedy 86-minute runtime, but even if Popstar doesn’t apologize for essentially being a feature-length comedy sketch, it’s so well-written and so amusing that you won’t have much trouble appreciating the big joke behind it all.
The big focus of Popstar is Andy Samberg’s character, Conner Friel, or, as he refers to himself, “Conner4Real.” Yes, really. If you think you can already imagine how someone identified as, “Conner4Real” would look, think and act, and you crack up just thinking about it, then chances are, Popstar is the comedy for you.
Samberg has been doing very well for himself lately, primarily due to his regular stint on beloved FOX sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and he continues to ride that comedic high note in Popstar. Samberg is a talented comedian that hasn’t always been given the best material, but in this movie, he’s absolutely at the top of his game. Samberg’s comically vapid, unrepentantly self-absorbed and blissfully arrogant Conner is a constant joy to watch, even at his most reprehensible and deluded. There’s something strangely innocent and likable about Conner’s character, who was given an enormous amount of exaggerated praise throughout his life, indirectly leading to the spoiled, immature adult that he grew into. Sure, Samberg playing a delusional man-child is nothing new, even for Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans, but Popstar does effectively play to Samberg’s strengths, which is unsurprising, considering that it’s written and directed by his Lonely Island running mates, with Samberg himself also contributing to some of the script.
Samberg’s Lonely Island cohorts, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, also show up in the movie, doing duties both in front of and behind the camera, even if their characters, former bandmates of Conner’s back when the Lonely Island-esque trio were called, “The Style Boyz”, still firmly exist to service Conner’s arc exclusively. Schaffer’s songwriter, Lawrence, a grumpy recluse who ran away from the industry to become a farmer after Conner’s solo success, and Taccone’s Owen, a loyal mainstay who continues to work as Conner’s DJ, interestingly represent two separate extremes of Conner’s ever-bloating spoiled attitude. Lawrence is pure rejection and Owen is pure acceptance, and one of the ways that the movie mines strong jokes from these two characters is how Conner’s increasing inward focus prevents him from truly appreciating either stance from the two men that he is closest with.
The other two major personalities in the movie come in the form of Owen’s main professional handlers. Sarah Silverman plays Conner’s publicist, Paula, and Tim Meadows, getting a welcome use of his underrated comedic talents here, plays Conner’s manager, Harry. Rounding out the ensemble, Paula and Harry move away from the interpersonal fallout of Conner’s actions, and instead build upon a more personal conflict with his character. Harry is practical, but meek, knowing how to position Conner as a level-headed success, but often not having the resolve to truly push Conner to respect himself or his audience. On the other side of the issue, Paula is very assertive and charismatic, but outwardly lacks common sense, inadvertently leading her to constantly sign off on Conner’s increasingly outlandish behaviour. In a humourous way, despite the Conner promotion machine working swimmingly, Conner’s professional supervisors still manage to lack those critical ingredients that would blend together to help turn him into a sensible human being, beyond his musical craft and celebrity influence.
The rest of the cast consists of cameos upon cameos upon cameos. Popstar is packed to the brim with celebrity appearances, even if many of them are very brief. Perhaps this is an in-joke in and of itself, with the movie aiming to cram in as many celebrity appearances as it can get away with, for the sake of adding names to a cast that don’t really affect the production, but if you were hoping to see lots of advertised faces like Bill Hader, Will Forte, Martin Sheen or Maya Rudolph, you really don’t. Still, even the smallest parts contribute something funny and effective to the movie, even if you may wish that you could have seen more of some especially hilarious personalities.
Being portrayed in a mockumentary style, Popstar doesn’t have a ‘plot’ per se. It certainly has a direction, as it chronicles the fictional rise and fall of fictional pop sensation, Conner4Real, and that’s the entire progression of the movie. The whole affair basically unfolds as if you were either watching a satirized version of one of those popstar-glorifying theatrical documentaries from several years ago, or looking at some sort of profile on a show like Behind the Music, only obviously viewed through an especially exaggerated, comedic lens in this case.
Like I said, the mockumentary style has lulls here and there, and somehow, the movie feels longer than it is, despite it being very short, but overall, the ‘story’ of Popstar is quite funny and enjoyable. Most of this is obviously due to the talents of Samberg, though the many other performers help to flesh out the tale of Conner4Real in satisfying ways, having their own memorable jokes and eccentricity that gives this fictional act an incredible sense of wit and character, one that still peeks its head up during the few duller stretches.
Popstar is directed by both Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, who also wrote the script with Andy Samberg. This means that, if you appreciate The Lonely Island especially, then you will love the way that this movie is helmed. Everything is given an intentionally amateur-looking, reality TV-style feel, making it feel strangely genuine, even during some of the movie’s most ridiculous gags. There are a few scenes that look like they’re more traditionally filmed with movie cameras, but a huge chunk of Popstar feels like it was shot on a smartphone, which adds credibility to the silliness and vanity of Conner and his circles.
Another effective element to Schaffer’s and Taccone’s direction is that the music in Popstar is very well-done, as you can imagine. The movie is full of original songs for Conner that are just as funny as they are catchy, and beyond the jokes, many of Popstar’s most enjoyable sequences contain performances from these songs. Lonely Island fans will definitely want to own this movie’s soundtrack, since there’s a lot of Lonely Island-esque charm throughout the direction (even if there are no veteran Lonely Island songs in this movie), obviously combined with the grounded, yet irreverent edge of Judd Apatow’s many successful comedy projects. Schaffer and Taccone don’t make every scene work, but they definitely succeed at most of them, successfully making a mockumentary that is both funny and easy to fondly recall.
Popstar is a movie best enjoyed by those who love mocking the larger-than-life culture of celebrities and pop music, but even if you just enjoy lovable, clever comedies, this movie is still very recommendable. Samberg is a delight here, even when he’s playing a socially detestable headcase, and the rest of the ensemble feels comparably funny, and consistently charming, in all of their biting commentary on overblown media hype, and the quick death of ill-advised fads. The movie sometimes ranges from being a grounded examination of a timely entertainment topic to a more off-the-wall screwball comedy that happily removes itself from real-world logic, but regardless of the tone in any given scene, the laughs and investment rarely waver.
We’ve already had two strong Summer comedies for 2016 so far, in The Nice Guys and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and while Popstar definitely isn’t as clever as The Nice Guys especially, it’s another appealing Summer comedy to add to this year’s pile of successes in the genre. Those who previously enjoyed the musical silliness of The Lonely Island will find especially big laughs in this movie, but even if you’ve never chuckled along to the likes of, “I Just Had Sex”, “Motherlover”, or, “Jizz in My Pants”, you’ll nonetheless likely find yourself enjoying the twisted, narcissistic journey of Conner4Real, even if you definitely won’t envy him.
- Samberg's Conner4Real is a funny, appealing mockumentary subject
- Huge array of lovable side characters and celebrity cameos
- Fun, catchy original music
- Not every scene's jokes land
- Sometimes feels more drawn-out than it really is