The plot of the music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, by the sketch comedy group The Lonely Island, is a journey that could be extrapolated onto the story of The Lonely Island itself. Hired by Saturday Night Live for its hilarious music videos, Andy Samberg proved to be the breakout star, like his character Connor4Real in Popstar, while Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer found success behind the camera as writers and directors (and sometime performers). One has to wonder whether Popstar is their reckoning with group vs. individual stardom.
Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer co-star as the Beastie Boys-esque rap group the Style Boyz. When Connor’s stardom takes off as a Justin Bieber-type bad-boy pop star, the group fizzles, and Never Stop Never Stopping (a reference to Bieber’s own documentary Never Say Never) follows the peak of his success and ultimate downfall.
The first two-thirds of Popstar uses documentary form to gleefully, and savagely, skewer celebrity in the age of nonstop social media, and the celebrity-crazed news cycle, in which wardrobe malfunctions are breaking news, intimate moments are live-streamed and Big Gulp-swilling gossip journalists snark the pain away. One of the film’s best bits involves a corporate partnership with an appliance manufacturer to insert Connor’s new album, CONNquest, into every home appliance, and the invasion of privacy backfires spectacularly.
The jokes are densely packed, and the film merits a second watch simply to try to catch everything that goes by too fast — every nonsense bit of word salad from Connor’s Catchphrase Verse, for example. Also fast and furious are the cameos from celebs, who pop up as themselves, to sing the praises of Connor and the Style Boyz, or playing roles as part of Connor’s entourage. These produce mixed results: Justin Timberlake is having a bit too much silly fun as Connor’s personal tour chef Tyrus, and sadly, Snapchat star DJ Khaled’s appearance already feels dated.
The best parts of Popstar lie in the strengths of the Lonely Island that we’ve loved on SNL: nonsensical and silly takes on pop tunes with raunchy wordplay, coupled with charismatic delivery. It’s a shame that the best, most shocking cut debuted on SNL last weekend, because it would have hit harder in the film.
The pop parody is on point through Connor’s downfall and dark night of his soul, but the last third feels as if The Lonely Island team decided to stop writing and just wrap things up quickly and easily. The film stops being satirical, and the self-congratulation starts to feel real. It’s almost as if The Lonely Island starts to take the praise intended for the fictional Style Boyz.
To that end, the fawning from legendary black rappers and musicians Nas and Questlove over the goofy rap group of three very white dudes drifts from the ironic to the uncritical, and it doesn’t sit right. Two of the songs are direct references to white rappers Macklemore and Insane Clown Posse, but the racial and cultural dynamics are avoided. Popstar wants to be culturally insightful, but in refusing to interrogate itself, it subverts its own message.
‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’
Rated R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use. 1:26. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill, Winchester.