Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Andy Samberg, Tim Meadows, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Sarah Silverman
Directors: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
MPAA Rating: R (for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 06/03/16
The entitlement within celebrity culture is an easy target to paint but a harder one to hit, which means that, even when Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping seems a bit conflicted about whether it wants to be satirical or simply silly, the screenplay (by Andy Samberg and directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) still has its laser sight pointed on that target, and that’s a good-enough reason to get behind the film’s particular modus operandi. Our protagonist (of sorts, as he isn’t the easiest person to sympathize with until a third act introduces him to actual humility) is an obvious conglomeration of Justin Bieber’s appropriation of black music culture and Kanye West’s mountainous ego. Those are also easy targets.
Of course, this is not a film that wants to venture far into the complexity of its targets. It is positioned as a documentary in the format of an E! True Hollywood Story, with various members of the music business making cameos as talking heads in the “special” and leading us through the rise and fall and second rise of Conner Friel (Samberg), the pop star in question who goes by the name Conner4Real. He was once the face of a boy band called the Style Boyz and has now been enjoying a privileged, blessed life as a solo artist whose first album, Thriller, Also, topped Billboard charts. His follow-up album, CONNquest, is the “most anticipated of the decade,” boasting 17 songs that Conner personally wrote (with a small village of producers) and a wrongheaded, Macklemore-esque leading single about civil rights (which barely veils his own masculinity, of course).
The other members of the Style Boyz include Owen (Taccone), who now acts as Conner’s oft-ignored DJ, Lawrence (Schaffer), who quit music after a writing credit was ignored to run a farm in Colorado, and its manager Tonee (Tim Meadows), himself the former member of a musical group. Conner’s publicist (Sarah Silverman) wants him to be as omnipresent as clinical depression, and so she sets up a deal with a kitchen appliances company to play his music every time one is opened. This causes a national blackout, and Conner’s reputation gets flushed down the toilet until Hunter (Chris Redd), another rapper with whom Conner gets along, presents him with the opportunity for more fame.
Plot is kept at the bare minimum, which means that the film is primarily focused on comic set-pieces that pretty consistently amuse. A gag involving exposed human anatomy of two kinds milks its potential for all its worth, then follows through with the punchline that has been set up. One performance of a Conner4Real track juxtaposes sexual intercourse with the killing of Osama bin Laden, while another one mollifies the artist’s exceptional brain capacity at an awards show by pairing him up with a vocal legend well beyond his league. R&B artist Seal turns up at a public marriage proposal, only to be attacked by wolves belonging to a company who employs them for parties.
The gags don’t stop here, and neither do the cameos, with the film’s closing reel crediting more celebrities as themselves than I can remember (Faces with names like Nas, Usher, Questlove, Simon Cowell, and even two of the members of Arcade Fire are just a handful of the onslaught) and other celebrities filling bit roles of their own, such as Justin Timberlake as an aspiring singer and creepy caterer and a certain parodist in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance that showcases his chameleon talents. Silliness like this is where the charm of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (an amusingly redundant title that reflects this silliness) lies, so it’s ok that the laser-guided satire segues to random humor. It’s still funny, which means the film succeeds in either direction.