Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a solid Lonely Island sketch over-stretched to fill a feature-length running time.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping tells the story of Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), the onetime member of a boy band (known as Style Boyz) turned pop music sensation and celebrated recording artist. Conner, whose own personal payroll includes Owen – his lifelong friend and Style Boyz bandmate-turned DJ (Jorma Taccone) – as well as his trusty manager Harry Duggins (Tim Meadows), begins the next stage of his musical career by releasing his second album, titled Conquest. However, when Conquest doesn’t take-off as expected and Conner finds that his popularity is waning in general, he and his entourage resort to increasingly desperate measures in an attempt to change their fortunes – be it hiring the unstable, yet up and coming rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) to serve as Conner’s opening act or incorporating illusionist tricks into Conner’s tour performances.
Despite their efforts, everything that Conner and his employees/friends do only seems to speed up, not reverse, Conner’s professional (and, soon enough, personal) downward spiral. Owen then comes up with a scheme to save Conner’s falling star: reunite him with his jilted Style Boyz lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Shaffer), in the hopes that the pair reconcile their friendship and help one another reclaim their former musical glory.
Written by and starring all three members of The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Shaffer) and co-directed by two of them (Taccone and Shaffer), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a feature-length version of the group’s skits – specifically, their popular musical parody numbers (“I’m On A Boat”, “Threw It On the Ground”, “YOLO”, and so on). Popstar succeeds in delivering some of the same entertainment value as Lonely Island’s skit work – now afforded the additional freedom of an R-Rating to incorporate more raunchy humor and adults-only jokes into the mix. However, the group struggles to sustain their comedy approach over the course of a full-blown three act film narrative, as opposed to a 3-4 minute music video.
Popstar is a mockumentary that effectively imitates both the structure and aesthetic of musical tour/biographical documentaries that have been produced about such 21st-century pop stars as Katy Perry and groups like One Direction – with Justin Bieber and his own “concert movies” (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Justin Bieber’s Believe) being the most obvious inspiration for both Popstar and the Conner4Real character. The script by the Lonely Island trio, in combination with improv work from the movie’s comedian-studded cast (more on that later), does contain enough material to sustain a sharply-crafted skit that parodies modern pop music trends and the industry in general. However, when required to cover an entire film, the result is that there’s a comedic element in Popstar that gets dragged out or misses its target, for every one that hits its mark.
While Popstar contains its share of solid digs at the contemporary pop music world – satirizing corporate branding of modern pop music artists and how fickle their “stock value” (read: popularity) in terms of public perception (be it on social media or the entertainment news cycle) can be – but the jokes end up being recycled or re-purposed multiple times over the course of the movie, to the degree that they lose their freshness after a certain point. The film contains padding in the form of tangential comedy sequences and extended jokes that deliver the type of absurd (read: random) humor that fans have come to expect from the Lonely Island crew. Some of these comedic asides do rank among the funniest moments in the entire film, while others come off as attempts to make Popstar feel less like a collection of new Lonely Island song/musical numbers strung together with a by-the-numbers comedy plot.
In terms of direction, Taccone and Shaffer (whose past solo film directing efforts include Hot Rod and MacGruber, respectively) succeed in delivering a healthy variety of jokes with Popstar – with a range of comedy that includes visual gags, physical comedy, verbal improv, and scenes that riff on the conventions of the musician documentary sub-genre. The film has an Anchorman-style episodic design, with regard to how it places its characters (make that caricatures) in a variety of loosely-connected scenarios and situations – an approach that would have worked better if Poster’s actual characters were more interesting or memorable caricatures. Unfortunately, Conner and the other members of the Style Boyz (Owen and Lawrence) are pretty standard musician parodies (see: the dim-witted “talent” and the under-appreciated background artists, respectively), even with the Lonely Island crew bringing them to life. Popstar‘s leads also have a tendency to be upstaged by the side players in the film – even those with limited screen time, such as the “super-edgy” rapper Hunter (Chris Redd) and Conner’s fame-obsessed girlfriend Ashley (Imogen Poots).
Popstar is overflowing with cameos from real-world pop music stars, legendary singers/songwriters, and/or well-known musicians in general who appear via a series of “talking heads” interviews that help maintain the mockumentary design of the film – and, in some cases, earn a solid laugh too. The movie also boasts a parade of celebrity cameos on top of that, with key supporting roles played by comedians Tim Meadows (as Conner’s manager Harry) and Sarah Silverman (as Conner’s publicist, Paula) – while some of Samberg’s fellow Saturday Night Live vets (Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Will Forte) and other character actors with a proven knack for broad comedy (see: Joan Cusack as Conner’s mother) make brief appearances. Popstar tends to favor quantity over quality in this regard, but these cameos maintain an air of harmless silliness throughout the movie.
“Harmless silliness’ sums up the movie pretty well too, regardless of how much (or how little) mileage any individual filmgoer gets out of its irreverent shenanigans. Some might find that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a solid Lonely Island sketch over-stretched to fill a feature-length running time, while other will find it more to their liking – and perhaps see it as This Is Spinal Tap for a new generation. For the same reasons, however, it’s difficult to imagine that Popstar will be the project that lands Samberg, Taccone, and Shaffer’s musical/comedy troupe followers outside of their niche fanbase. Devoted Lonely Islands fans ought to find enough to enjoy here to justify checking Popstar out in theaters, but others are fine simply waiting for its home release – and in the meantime, checking out the film’s R-Rated original songs online through the Lonely Island’s Youtube channel.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping in now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 86 minutes long and is Rated R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use.
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