By all reason and logic, this should be an absolute traffic jam of a film: an artist biography film and mockumentary crossed with a concert film, one that is an honest simulacrum of all these subgenres while simultaneously spoofing the characters, the plot beats, and the industry, which is populated both by actors and musicians playing characters and actors and musicians playing themselves. Just typing that seems like it would equate to cacophony. On top of this, it hits the ground running and fires through the satire and story and musical numbers at such velocity, it's a minor miracle that we don't get whiplash.
Movie Review - Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
By Ben Gruchow
June 8, 2016
It’s a shaggy piece of work, made up of almost nothing but rough edges, and yet it works; part of this is because it’s funny, part of it is because the observations about both the music industry and the artist-biography format are often sharper than expected, and part of it is because there’s something of an actual, solid bedrock underpinning the character relationships. There’s a discipline to the movie’s timing and chemistry and interaction that anchors a lot of the sillier stuff, and there’s even a kind of sweetness to the pervading outlook; the movie lands a lot of zingers, but it’s never mean-spirited or gross.
The biography-film and mockumentary aspects tell us about The Style Boyz, consisting of Owen (Jorma Taccone), Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), and Conner (Andy Samberg). The Boyz are reminiscent of the flood of boy bands from the mid- to late-1990s; Conner, I guess, is the Justin Timberlake of the group: when a breakup occurs, he becomes a solo artist, with Owen continuing on as his DJ, under the act Conner4Real. The bulk of Popstar centers around the fallout from the disastrous release of Conner4Real’s sophomore album, Connquest, in which Conner discards the contributions of Owen (clearly the more musically talented of the two) and assembles the material himself. The album is critically panned in advance of release, and they plan to hype the launch with the dubious sponsorship of appliance manufacturer Aquaspin (their entire product lineup will have the ability to play Connquest when opened or powered on; the result to this scheme is one of the movie’s best out-of-nowhere punchlines, bested slightly by a following exchange consisting largely of audio).
Much of this setup and development occurs against a dizzying backdrop of cameos and guest turns by the actors we expect to show up in a film like this, and some we don’t (Joan Cusack as Conner’s mother provides a nice comic jolt that dissipates a little bit as we realize that her 30-second appearance is about all we’re going to get). The people we see much more of are Sarah Silverman as Conner’s publicist Paula, Imogen Poots as his girlfriend Ashley, Tim Meadows as his manager, and Chris Redd as Hunter the Hungry, an upstart rapper that Conner’s team brings on to open for him and prop up flagging album sales and public opinion.
Most of these people and the others we see in the early going exist to prop up Conner, too, in the first of several ways that the movie targets ego among the music industry’s biggest acts; certainly, you need a surfeit of ego to achieve escape velocity in entertainment, and most of Conner’s sizable entourage seems to exist to shield him from any kind of substantive criticism or adversity. This leads to an abundance of showmanship from him and a yawning blind spot when it comes to self-awareness. The movie satirizes this, more successfully in some ways than in others: Connquest’s lead single is a catastrophically misjudged piece of work called “Equal Rights,” seemingly targeting Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” in 2012, which covered the same social and musical territory. The music video for “Equal Rights” lands the punchline as far as being a clumsy and awkward attempt for a heterosexual white male attempting to tubthump for a position historically experienced by the oppressed. The difference here is that “Same Love,” for all of its musical liabilities, was actually released at a point where marriage equality was facing something of a decision point in politics; in 2016, the issue has been more or less settled on a legal basis. The movie makes a point of clarifying this immediately after the video finishes, but the moment makes a better momentary punchline than it does a reflection of how oblivious the participants in Conner’s world make their subject.
The dubious nature of the movie’s satire in moments like this doesn’t bother us, though; by this point, we’ve already seen the laceration of the industry and the celebrity via a rundown of the 30-odd members of Conner’s entourage and fawning idolatry of the fictional pop star through on-camera interviews with several real-life musical acts, playing more-or-less themselves; this wouldn’t have worked in a setup with actors playing fictional industry figures, and the movie’s almost-but-not-quite-there sense of reality is what grants it the ability to get away with half of the stuff it does.
Besides, even if you set aside the industry material, Popstar plays fair with the core members of the Style Boyz/Conner4Real; Samberg has spent most of his career developing and perfecting aspects of the well-meaning imbecile he’s playing here, and when that persona provides a punchline to a joke (“Ten seconds is an eternity! It’s a third of the way to Mars!” Conner exclaims after a wardrobe malfunction on stage), we don’t necessarily realize at the time how much the success of the joke depends on the foundation laid for the character. Conner, truthfully, isn’t the heart of the movie’s trio; he’s the foil. The core character is actually Schaffer’s Lawrence, who spends a good amount of time off screen and yet drives most of the movie’s story and background by virtue of his reasoning for initiating the Boyz’ breakup. It’s not a coincidence that once the movie addresses its central character conflict in the final act, it downshifts pretty hard in storytelling and comic momentum (although it gets in one more out-of-nowhere punchline regarding a vacancy at a musical awards show; it’s an obvious one, but it still got me).
It’s the type of friendly movie, zippy and yet laconic, that’s exactly the sort of antithesis needed to the 150-minute behemoths on the release schedule around it. I haven’t really mentioned the “concert film” part of the aesthetic; the writer-director-cast trio are known as The Lonely Island, and it’s worth noting that the many musical numbers in the film are impressive in how well they merge adept songcraft with utterly ridiculous content. It’s the best juxtaposition of its kind, I’d say, since the South Park movie in 1999. Popstar has a cult future, mostly located in streaming media, and “the best American comedy since Barbershop 3” doesn’t make for a particularly staggering quote piece, but it’s still the most fun I’ve had at the theater since April. I’d see it again, if I got the chance.