Comedy, like horror, is largely critic-proof, because the power of the genre lies in an immediate emotional reaction. You get scared. You laugh. It’s difficult to put a lie to either of those gut responses. It’s entirely possible to steel against them: your mood can dismiss the humor or the frights if you really try. But approaching the material openly reduces it to the immediate test: did I laugh? Was I scared?
This is why comedies rarely get great reviews, because critics have no power against that reaction, and it bugs them. So, for the first test of the effectiveness of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping? I laughed. Often. More in the beginning when the concepts were fresher than when the movie wore on, and there were spots that I knew were supposed to be gut busting laughs where I was merely amused.
But it’s still pretty funny.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the first Lonely Island movie, Lonely Island being the comedy rap group that was hired by SNL in 2005 – Andy Samberg as a cast member, his partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer as writers. Their digital musical shorts like “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” introduced viral internet comedy to the venerable late-night series which had been more than a little moribund in the new century. It’s only natural that when time came for them to make their own feature-length film, it would be musical in nature.
Andy Samberg, the break out star of Lonely Island, plays Conner Friel, the lead of a b-boy group “The Style Boyz”, with his childhood friends Lawrence Dunn and Owen Bouchard (Jorma and Akiva respectively). In a negative parallel to their real-life story, when Conner becomes the most popular member of the group (hilariously demonstrated by magazine covers where logos cover up the other band-members’ faces) Lawrence attacks him on stage, and they break up. Conner becomes Conner4Real, a solo act with a wildly successful first album off the back of his hit single, “I’m So Humble”. He’s kept Owen on as his DJ, but as Conner’s success grows, his old friends get shunted further to the side as he writes all the music for his second album himself. The results…are not good.
Popstar is a mockumentary in the Spinal Tap vein, charting the ridiculous excesses of the pop world and satirizing the current (as of 2015) music scene. While there’s occasionally questions from off-screen interviewers, much of the film is fly-on-the-wall scenes while Conner navigates his career hitting the top, and then spiraling downwards. There are also several talking-head interviews with real-life rap and pop stars that help to form the narrative bed of the story.
Conner’s breakout comes when he guests on someone else’s track, rapping a section filled entirely with insipid catchphrases. His promotional idea for his failing album is to pipe his music, unrequested, into home appliances throughout America. Every time a refrigerator door is opened, Conner4Life’s raps pour out. Not surprisingly, it backfired.
Conner’s tour isn’t selling out, so he relies on more and more gimmicks, including an opening act that begins to outdraw him. There’s a downward spiral, and then, of course, a remarkable comeback, because that’s what these stories require to happen. The question with this sort of comedy isn’t so much what happens in the story (which is fairly rote) but how hilariously it manages it.
Popstar does it pretty well. And it probably could have been an out-of-the-park success if it hadn’t been saddled with so many of the problems that plague modern comedy films. The first is the Apatowness of it. Judd Apatow was a producer on the film, and apparently cameoed as the penis that shows up in Conner’s window when he thought he was about to sign some boobs. (Apatow has made it his mission to normalize male frontal nudity in comedies, for reasons that are his own.) But that’s not the issue: the problem is that just about every character in every scene is being “the funny one” and mugging for laughs. Satirical comedy needs the people inhabiting the story to take it seriously. The laughs come from the contrast between their complete acceptance of a reality, and that reality being completely absurdity. That doesn’t work when every single human being in front of the camera is jeering and japing for laughs.
The second unfortunate aspect, though less pronounced in this film, is endless unfocused improvisation. Several jokes are clearly just riffs off the same topic, with the hope that quantity will always make up for insufficient quality. Thankfully, the musical nature of Popstar ameliorates this tendency: you can’t just show up on set and make up a tightly choreographed multimedia production number. A lot of the film had to be pre-planned, pre-written and set up, and when it fires right, Popstar often hits its mark.
It is not a biting satire; there’s too much comfort and complacency with the world of pop (including the endless winking “self-satirical” interviews with real-life pop stars, many of whom have worked with Lonely Island before) to make it anything stronger than a friendly tweaking. It can’t compare to Spinal Tap, the gold standard music satire, which was much more incisive, believable, and funnier. Popstar doesn’t deserve any classic status, but it was a complete box-office flop, which it didn’t deserve either. Popstar doesn’t outstay its welcome, delivers a story with its laughs, and is genuinely funny.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has been released by Shout Factory! in a limited-edition steelbook case. This has new artwork depicting a seen only heard in the film itself, when Connor and his manager have to fight off a swarm of bees with flamethrowers. There are also several extras on the disc, which are the same as the previously released Blu-ray from Universal. There’s an audio commentary by the three members of Lonely Island. There’s also 44 minutes of deleted scenes, a selection of six music videos for various Conner4Real and Style Boyz songs, and several other short video extras which are all basically 30 more minutes of deleted scenes.