The Lonely Island comedy group—consisting of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer—has devoted much of their career to spoofing pop-music and music-video clichés through viral videos and full-length albums, so it was inevitable that they would eventually broaden their satirical reach into a feature-length package. And with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the result feels bracingly limitless in its comic invention—a music-industry satire that finds humor in music-video parodies, throwaway verbal jokes, and visual gags scattered across the entirety of the frame. Half the fun of Popstar lies in its escalating “can you top this” sense of comic brio.
But Popstar’s template isn’t so much the joke-book style pioneered by Airplane! as it is the This Is Spinal Tap mockumentary model, which digs deep into the lives of its subjects while milking their behavior for laughs. The subject here is Conner4Real (Samberg), a white rapper who was once the star attraction of the Style Boyz, a rap trio he formed with Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), before they broke up and he struck out on his own. Though his first solo album was a huge hit, Conner4Real’s follow-up is tanking on the charts—not exactly because the music is terrible (even if it’s truly and hilariously so), but because of failed publicity stunts that have led the public to turn on him. He makes a deal with an appliance company to have his new album play out of refrigerators, toasters, blenders, and such—a marketing ploy that causes a near-nationwide blackout. His attempt to counteract bad press with a public proposal to his girlfriend, Ashley (Imogen Poots), goes disastrously awry thanks to a bunch of unruly wolves, one of which attacks the singer Seal (one of countless star cameos in the film).
Ultimately, it’s Conner4Real’s own narcissism that leads to his precipitous fall from grace—a self-regard that few around him are willing to call him out on, as they indulge his increasingly desperate marketing schemes and stage gimmicks, insulating him as much as possible from the negative press simply because, as his publicist, Paula (Sarah Silverman), says, “It seems to make so many people money.” Which isn’t to say Conner4Real is totally oblivious to how manufactured his public persona is. In fact, he embraces it with a zeal that probably helped break the Style Boyz apart in the first place.
Popstar’s main satirical target is this bling-driven image factory, with the music industry painted as one in which nearly every action, on stage and off, is calculated for public approval. This lampooning of a business built on pure surface extends to the riotous original songs, many of which feature sharply ironic or plainly ridiculous lyrics set to seductive dance beats and electronic arrangements. Highlights include the ironically ego-boasting “I’m Humble” and the “Finest Girl,” which compares sex to the death of Osama bin Laden.
The Lonely Island posse, though, isn’t interested in relentless derision. Just as Samberg located a magnetic innocence to goofball Rod Kimble, Hot Rod’s Evel Knievel-like main character, Popstar exudes a similar generosity toward Conner4Real, recognizing how much of an arrogant sell-out he is, but refusing to completely condemn him for it. After all, his successes up to this point have come easily to him thanks to his good looks and charm; this is his first taste of real adversity, and naturally he’s woefully unprepared for it.
In the end, Popstar perhaps has a bit too much affection for him. It’s slightly disappointing to see the film take a turn toward predictable hugs-and-kisses reconciliations and redemption in the third act—maybe the result of the influence of the film’s executive producer, Judd Apatow, whose work often sports conservative undertones. Still, even if Popstar is never quite as savage as it could be in its satire, there’s something fairly pungent about the film’s overriding idea that, when it comes to pop music, we’ll often accept ridiculous or even downright offensive lyrics and personalities as long as they’re wrapped up in catchy hooks and high-energy stagecraft.