Reviewer: Philip Price
Directors: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone
Stars: Akiva Schaffer, Amechi Okocha, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Chris Redd, Imogen Poots,James Buckley, Joan Cusack, Jorma Taccone, Maya Rudolph, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, Seal, Tim Meadows,Will Arnett
Released: August 26th, 2016
There is a definitive climactic feel to everything about the latest venture from The Lonely Island, as if a culmination of everything the trio has been working towards since “Lazy Sunday” debuted over ten years ago. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer have always had a knack for writing these catchy, hilarious spoofs of trending musical styles by taking timely and/or brutally honest perspectives and applying them to legit beats created by credible producers. The trick is they convey their sometimes cutting commentary and other times all out ridiculousness with the mentality of the pop culture machine in that it all feels superfluous and can be enjoyed for its surface level pleasures, but if one cares to look-there is more there. The Lonely Island have applied that same approach and ideology to their latest feature film project as this is very much a mockumentary that is lampooning the trend of pop stars producing their own “behind the scenes” documentaries in order to both appeal further to their established fan base while hopefully converting a few of the uninitiated as well. Out of the big, sprawling narrative we call life the managing teams around the likes of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction have crafted three-act narratives around their phenomenon’s in order to give some sense of structure to lives that likely have very little of it. The Lonely Island have taken the idea of this type of branding and selling and picked out every aspect in which they can make fun of thus creating the perfect vessel of sorts for them to both create their own music and release it simultaneously while adding the all-important visual element to those songs in the form of a feature film. As a longtime fan of The Lonely Island and pretty much all they stand for Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feels like that aforementioned culmination due to the fact this format provides the perfect stage for the type of comedy and social commentary The Lonely Island has always been good at, but have now been afforded the chance to do so on a much bigger scale. Are there issues with the film as a whole? Sure, a few, but to pick out the minor quibbles would be to detract from how much fun it is to watch this deconstruction of not only the music industry, but pop culture in general and the near perfect execution with which it pulls off the task it sets out to accomplish.
As a cross between Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake the subject of this documentary is Conner Friel AKA Conner4Real (Samberg) who was once one-third of the popular boy band/rap group The Style Boyz that consisted of childhood friends Owen (Taccone), and Lawrence (Schaffer) before he broke out on his own. In some ways, this trajectory is similar to The Lonely Island as well given the group was primed for success before Samberg became front and center on the SNL stage. It is once Conner takes the stage as a solo act that the similarities to Bieber really begin to kick in-from the extravagantly calculated coolness of his wardrobe to the haircut and pace and register in which he speaks-it all seems to be done in a manner to convey a certain type of attitude so that he might be perceived in a very specific light. The documentary begins on the eve of Conner releasing his second solo album, Connquest, with his large team of supporters and errand boys prepping for the accompanying tour that is expected to do huge business following his breakout solo record. As we’re informed by Conner’s manager, Harry (Tim Meadows), the popstar has thirty-two people on his payroll including his publicist (Sarah Silverman), a roadie (Bill Hader), a few lackey’s to keep him company (James Buckley and Amechi Okocha), and a handful of others who are assigned absurd roles that are probably based more in reality than some would care to admit. As for Conner’s former bandmates, Owen is now the DJ on Conner’s tour as his role is growing ever smaller as is his presence when Conner decides to put a huge robot helmet on him to emulate the likes of EDM artists given their current popularity. Lawrence, on the other hand, has openly hated Conner since he departed the Style Boyz and took full credit for writing an iconic verse that Lawrence claims to have come up with. While the Style Boyz drift further and further apart Conner is having to deal with the fact his latest album is tanking both critically and commercially. Not even a marketing tie-in with house hold appliances can save the record with help in the form of up and coming rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) who is brought in to help sell concert tickets only further forcing Conner to face certain realities. All of this leading to a sort of existential crisis for Conner that will ultimately lend him some perspective and set him on a fresh track where he’s able to discover himself and his true purpose.
While Popstar is clearly in the vein of something like This is Spinal Tap it is also very much that film for the current generation. And like that film, while the characters and situations account for large portions of the humor, what is most important is the music. One of the few concerns going into this new Lonely Island movie was that their brand of outrageous pop parodies, while all well and good in bluntly making fun of pop music, wouldn’t be able to translate to songs we’d actually hear on the radio. That is still an issue of sorts as Bieber would never put out a song about a girl with an Osama Bin Laden fetish, but that they make not only Conner, but all of the Style Boyz, rather dense allows for the idea they’d think songs about how the Mona Lisa actually sucks could be a hit. And while the songs aren’t as sly or subtle as they maybe could have been they aren’t disappointing either due solely to fact it is new Lonely Island music that is as good as their music ever has been. We understand the whole thing is a joke anyway and so the goofiness of the songs is taken not with a sense of how they would play in the real world, but are made funnier by how close they in fact do come to sounding like what we actually hear on top 40 radio today. If one has been paying attention to the marketing for this film the melodies and music of tracks like “Humble,” will already sound familiar, but if not it is a real treat to discover these songs within the context of the film. Given the only song that wasn’t released prior to the film’s release is a Macklemore satire called “Equal Rights,” that features P!nk and is as perfect a Lonely Island track as one can imagine, it is this sequence in particular that serves as the most gut-bustingly memorable in the entirety of the film. Personally, there were hopes for more moments such as this. There is plenty of music included to be sure, but the group never allows the songs to play out in full nor do they create new music videos for each of the singles Conner releases. As previously mentioned, these complaints are minimal for despite the story not giving us more of what are obviously very funny people doing very funny things (the film wouldn’t have been hurt by more Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, or…Mariah Carey?), but the plus side is that directors Schaffer and Taccone keep things moving at such a break-neck speed (the movie is a mere 86-minutes) it’s easy to forget about such aspects until after the ride has come to an end.
That the music succeeds is a big success and that The Lonely Island is able to get real people from within the music industry to more or less spoof themselves is a huge plus, but what makes Popstar most successful is its ability to dial in on the small details of what makes this business work and how we, as consumers, feed off this stuff despite real, world-changing things going on. There isn’t one strand in particular that stands out more than another, but that we get Imogen Poots as Conner’s girlfriend of six months who he proposes to in order to change the media cycle around him after an embarrassing incident on stage, or Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, and Chelsea Peretti completely parodying TMZ in such over the top fashion it can only hope to be as nonsensical as the real thing is where the film finds its weight. The Lonely Island undoubtedly have a front row seat to this type of behavior and they have clearly been taking notes for years as their film is filled to the brim with slight nods and whole bits that play up the insanity of how some such irrational thoughts, ideas, and actions can eventually become accepted if enough people give it a seal of approval. These ideas and commentaries all come back around to a single observation though, and that is simply how self-involved we’ve become. If we don’t share or post about what we’re doing it’s as if it didn’t happen anymore and in this type of society where we have to constantly sell ourselves and play up the quality of our lives as opposed to those on our friends or followers list there grows an inherent need to discuss one’s self more and more. See the number of selfies certain people post or the amount of stock some people place in the number of likes they receive on Instagram and it’s not hard to see The Lonely Island isn’t just making fun of Justin Bieber or the industry of pop music, but that they’re trying to tell all of us a little something. We’re just not as big a target as the Biebs. With that said, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is still very much a broad comedy that keeps the laughs coming and the entertainment value sky high. I hate to speak in hyperbole, but given we’re halfway through the calendar year it doesn’t feel ridiculous to say The Lonely Island have crafted the best and funniest comedy of the year so far and that this film should be thought of with a certain amount of esteem despite the fact it falls into the category of comedy. It accomplishes what it sets out to do in almost near perfect fashion. A task many of the Oscar hopefuls we’ll see later this year won’t be able to claim.