Watching the first few minutes of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, you can’t help but be reminded of two things: the trailer for Justin Bieber’s concert film/documentary, Never Say Never – with its shots of old home movies mixed with insane tour footage – and the classic comedy film, This Is Spinal Tap. While it’s fair to say Popstar meets at the intersection of those two movies, it goes well beyond that to both skewer and sympathize with the pitfalls of celebrity culture in the social media age.
It’s been almost a decade since The Lonely Island’s first movie, Hot Rod, hit theaters, and a lot has happened since then. The trio left Saturday Night Live, released three successful albums, and Samberg found a home on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Popstar brings Andy, Jorma, and Akiva back together for a Judd Apatow-produced feature that is incredibly meta – even for a mockumentary.
The story centers around Samberg’s character Conner (a.k.a. Conner4Real) who broke off from his childhood friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) – collectively knowns the acclaimed 90s hip hop trio The Style Boyz – to forge a solo career launched on songs that are as nonsensical and catchy as any Lonely Island joint. With Owen as his reluctant DJ/iPod handler (and one of 32 sycophants in his paid entourage) and Lawrence retired to farm life, Conner’s star continues to rise until his second album tanks (the only positive review comes from The Onion) and his resulting world tour becomes riddled with logistical problems and more than a few identity crises.
There are portions of Popstar where you’re not sure if you’re watching the film or real-life viral promotion for the film – for example, when Conner goes on The Tonight Show to do a nostalgic song and dance bit with Jimmy Fallon – and the climax of the movie has the feel of an alternate-universe VMAs, with footage from real awards shows mixed in to make it even more of a mindfuck. The musical performances play out like a string of SNL Digital Shorts – including “Finest Girl” (Bin Laden Song), which actually was on the SNL season finale – and unlike Spinal Tap, this trio has the real-life music industry experience to back up their parody. (“When one of our songs is a hit, it actually makes it a little funnier,” Taccone told Billboard. “‘I’m on a Boat’ is two-times platinum—that’s hilarious.”)
Adding to the realism are the many documentary-style interviews with celebrities such as Emma Stone, Simon Cowell, DJ Khaled, Questlove, The RZA, Nas, Arcade Fire, and ASAP Rocky, to name only a few. Mariah Carey also makes a few surprisingly funny cameos, even more so when you consider the public “breakdown” she had while making a movie about her life. The actors who aren’t playing themselves are still strong archetypes of what is considered normal in the music industry today: Sarah Silverman plays the often imprudent publicist, Tim Meadows shines as the manager whose own music career got away, and Maya Rudolph represents the ridiculous corporate sponsor “AquaSpin,” whose misguided marketing ploys are unfortunately not that far off from reality. There’s even a spot-on TMZ parody that punctuates the movie with commentary by Will Arnett, Eric Andre, Chelsea Peretti and Mike Birbiglia, plastic drink cups and all, that serves as a greek chorus for the film, and a ruthless portrayal of Harvey and the gang.
It seems the only person who isn’t in the movie, except vicariously through the character of Conner, is Justin Bieber. It’s hard to count all the references to the Biebz, between the movie’s subtitle and Conner’s hover-boarding, exotic pet-owning, Anne Frank house-disgracing activities. But Popstar also aims to empathize with musicians like Bieber whose early fame means they might never have fully learned to handle adversity as an adult. The movie’s breakout actor, comedian Chris Redd, plays a similar character named Hunter The Hungry (kind of a Tyler The Creator spinoff), a rising rapper who gets so wrapped up in outshining Conner that he becomes just as big a sellout as he is (although, according to Conner, and perhaps the thesis of the movie in general, “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore”).
Overall, Popstar is exactly the movie that you’re expecting: a star-studded and funny, albeit predictable, three-act comedy (they even joke in the movie about the final act having the same plot as The Parent Trap). It will undoubtedly replace Hot Rod as the official Lonely Island movie, even if it doesn’t kill at the box office. Similar to other Apatow movies, the ensuing DVD is bound to have even funnier cut scenes and outtakes. Without giving too much away, there is one scene that results in about 20 solid seconds of full-frontal male nudity, and there’s no way they filmed that without anyone cracking up.