‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’ Review: The Lonely Island Makes ‘Spinal Tap: The Next Generation’
It’s been more than 30 years since This Is Spinal Tap mocked the pop music scene and launched the mockumentary subgenre. If there’s such a thing as a “spiritual remake” of an old movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is it. The film takes the same basic structure as Spinal Tap (a fake documentary about life in the music industry) along with its narrative framework (a formerly hot pop act’s fall from grace) and layers in a whole new generation of jokes about dopey celebrities in the age of social media. It doesn’t break any new ground, and it might not even be its creators’ most effective satire of this subject, but it is funny.
Those creators are the members of the comedy troupe the Lonely Island; Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone. Their best known work is the library of digital shorts they produced during their collective tenure at Saturday Night Live, many of which involved goofy but surprisingly catchy pop songs. Lonely Island tunes like “I’m on a Boat” skewered the trappings of fame, wealth, and privilege; Popstar blows that impulse up to feature length, and stars Samberg as Conner4real, the breakout solo artist from an old boy band called the Style Boyz. After Connor had a falling out with songwriter Owen (Schaffer), he forged ahead as a solo act, keeping the third Style Boy, Owen (Taccone), in tow as his DJ and hype man.
Conner’s first album (the hilariously named Thriller, Also) sold millions. But as the release date for his follow-up record nears, there are signs that all is not well in Conner’s world. His concerts stop selling out. His new album gets pitiful reviews. (Rolling Stone gives it a poop emoji out of four stars.) His opening act (Chris Redd as rapper Hunter the Hungry) starts upstaging him. What’s an empty-headed, marginally-talented, fame-obsessed musician to do?
Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone are astute observers of celebrity and pop culture, which provides them with plenty of raw material to work with and make fun of. U2’s bafflingly unpopular decision to give every iTunes user a free album becomes the source of a very clever Popstar sequence where Conner teams up with an appliance manufacturer to put his music in washing machines and refrigerators around the country, with similarly disastrous results. Desperate to boost his sagging image, Conner hatches a halfhearted (but media saturated) marriage proposal to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots), but that goes horribly wrong too after the wolves hired to witness the happy occasion break loose and attack Seal (the artist, not the animal). The Lonely Island guys don’t spare the media, either; Will Arnett steals the movie as the Harvey Levin of Popstar’s equivalent of TMZ, slurping on an endless supply of water bottles as his staff (which includes a couple other cameos) laugh at Conner’s misfortune.
Meanwhile, Conner keeps plugging away at his tour, even as his career crumbles around him. His new batch of songs, on subjects ranging from the ugliness of the Mona Lisa to a woman who wants to f— harder than the military f—ed Osama Bin Laden, mostly stink. That’s almost as big of a problem for Popstar as it is for Conner; his bizarre lyrics and foolish dance routines are good for a couple chuckles, but the joke begins to run out of steam by the time the movie goes into its sixth or seventh full-blown musical number. None of the songs are as memorable or as funny as the Lonely Island’s greatest hits (or, for that matter, Spinal Tap’s).
Directors Schaffer and Taccone do a nice job aping the style and ubiquity of modern documentaries and reality television. While the songs are not the Lonely Island’s best, Conner’s concerts are full of energy, and the sharp, glossy cinematography by Brandon Trost (who also shot Taccone’s previous masterpiece, MacGruber) convincingly mimics everything from awards show performances to Snapchat updates.
The movie’s smartest joke, though, is also its quietest. While Conner rages at his entourage about an on-stage embarrassment, TVs in the back edges of the frame hype terrifying headlines like “Oil Prices Rise 30% in 4 Days”. No one in the movie notices or comments on the apocalyptic news — the Lonely Island’s way of reminding us that the airtime wasted on these dumb celebrities and their inane drama distracts us from the real issues (#breadandcircuses). They’re right, of course, but after all the SNL Digital Shorts and sketches (and with Spinal Tap providing the beat-for-beat blueprint), Popstar feels a bit like elite military snipers shooting fish in a barrel. Their aim is true, but the targets are almost too easy — not to mention awfully familiar.