Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
Review by Zach Dennis
It is easy to poke fun at the culture of celebrity and music stardom — pointing fingers at the absurdity of its icons hiding behind their social media-laced facades and their strive to drive the news cycle to fit their needs. In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the trio from The Lonely Island create a film that not only understands this culture, but has strict comments on it. But where many similar films have excelled at digging into the psyche of these larger-than-life figures, this one seems to be too base level to really cut through all the insanity that follows popstars.
Starring Andy Samberg as Conner4Real, a fictitious popstar in the vein of Justin Bieber, the story follows the release of his second solo album. Conner was part of a popular boy band (which included the film’s writer/directors Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer as his other members), which broke up after he began to strive for a more solo-based career.
One of the members, Owen (Taccone), is now his DJ, but is now relegated to standing behind a booth and pushing play on an iPod. The other member, Lawrence (Schaffer), has become a recluse in Colorado after a falling out with Conner, who didn’t give him credit for the song lyrics that helped his career take off.
Popstar plays like the very popular documentaries about Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction that came out a few years back, but most directly owes its roots toThis is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary directed by Rob Reiner that follows another fictionalized band through its latest tour. Where Spinal Tap succeeds is creating real, rich characters that you become realized caricatures of actual musical artists, but Popstar never feels like something full.
The Lonely Island understands what is funny about popular culture — one of the running bits is the fact that Conner overshares information on his social media profiles. These moments generate laughs, but by the end of the film, there is something hollow and missing from this comedy. It has a lot of funny scenes, but it seems to suffer from the same fate as another comedy film from this year, Keanu,and shows a frightening trend of comedy stars making the move from 5-minute long sketches and struggling to find a way to tell a longer story that is engaging for its entire runtime.
Much like Keanu, Popstar feels like a collection of sketches done by The Lonely Island (who cut their teeth with similar shorts on SNL) rather than a fully formed hour-and-a-half long movie. The songs are exceptional — specifically one where Conner tries to sing about wanting equal rights for homosexuals, but instead, keeps repeating that he isn’t gay himself. Couple that with the other songs — one about having sex with a girl who wants to “do it like we did Bin Laden” and another where he sings about being humble with Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine — and you have some of the more entertaining moments of the year so far, and ones that accentuate the talents that The Lonely Island have displayed so far in their careers, which is to satirize different genres of music while still working within those constraints.
Most of the film also features talking head moments from figures in the entertainment industry with people such as Mariah Carey, RZA, and Simon Cowell commenting on Conner’s impact on the music industry. These moments work for the most part, but after a recent viewing of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it left me thinking that maybe a method that would generate more laughs would be to have comedians playing the different musical figures rather than the talking head moments where the laughs are supposed to come from these artists playing against their public perception.
But by the end, it just never seemed like this movie completely came together. There are so many great moments, and a clear understanding of what is funny about popular music and its artists, and maybe that is less an indictment on The Lonely Island and their talents, and more on just how insane popular culture really is. Popstar does its best to comment on it, but just that little bit doesn’t scratch the surface of how bizarre celebrity culture and the idea of fame is in modern society.
For the most part, Popstar succeeds as both a comedy and satire, but it also leaves a hollow and disappointed feeling because it never seemed to hit the high aspirations it had for itself. The moments work, and we have a good time, but this movie is no Spinal Tap and it lacks in comparison of even more recent offerings such as Walk Hard, but for what it went for it does its best and it reminds us of the truly insane world we are a part of (or at least watch from afar).