Popstar: Never Stop, Never Stopping review: Lonely Island mockumentary is destined for cult status

It has a wit and zest that few other music mockumentaries possess – and, in the long run, that should help it soon to achieve cult status at the very least

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 24 August 2016 12:21 BST
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Dir: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, 147 mins, starring Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer

Outside such notable exceptions as The Rutles (All You Need Is Cash) and This Is Spinal Tap, most music-industry spoofs strike a horribly discordant note. There is so much excess and absurdity involved in the world of pop, rap and rock anyway that satirising it in movies seems altogether redundant.

Popstar, though, is a mockumentary put together with such brio that you hardly notice that most of its gags are very obvious. True to genre conventions, it is packed with talking-head interviews and cameos from real-life pop stars, producers and svengalis. These include everyone from Simon Cowell to Ringo Starr, from Usher and RZA to Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. Meanwhile, former pop idol Justin Timberlake plays a chef to the stars, inordinately proud of the three or four different shapes in which he can cut carrots.

Popstar was made by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the Lonely Island comedy trio who’ve achieved considerable popularity on Saturday Night Live. Given their background, it is not surprising that the movie sometimes plays like a series of comic sketches strung together. It is inspired by the music docs made in recent years about the likes of Justin Bieber, One Direction and Katy Perry.

This is a study in narcissistic bratdom. The main brat in question here is the petulant, spoilt, only very marginally talented Conner4Real (Samberg). His status is underlined by the 32 hangers-on and general sycophants on his payroll. (One diminutive employee has been hired simply to stand next to him in photographs so that he looks taller.)

Back in the day, Conner was part of boy band Style Boyz but stabbed his fellow band members, Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), in the back by embarking on a solo career. As the film starts, his new album, Connquest, is just about to be released and he is gearing up to promote it with a tour and as many media appearances as his manager (Tim Meadows) can arrange.

The manager’s boldest gambit is to arrange a deal for the new album to be played automatically on electrical appliances. Whenever anyone buys a new fridge or microwave, Conner’s songs will start to play the moment the door is open.

Conner’s songs are jaw-dropping in their general banality and offensiveness. One of the most outrageous is “Finest Girl” with its chorus, “she wanted me to f*** her harder than the US government f***ed Bin Laden”. Another is a rap in which Conner repeats again and again that he is not gay while making a heartfelt plea for gay marriage to be legalised. (Ringo Starr appears on camera to point out that it already is.)

It helps that Samberg is a charismatic performer who puts over even Conner’s most idiotic songs with complete self-belief. On stage, he passes for the real thing. Off stage, he is likeable enough in his own self-absorbed way. We can just about understand how he managed to attract the hordes of fans. These fans, though, are dropping away and Conner is trying to come to terms with a concept he doesn’t understand at all, namely failure. The only moment here in which he shows any real emotion for any creature other than himself is when his beloved turtle Maximus falls sick.

Popstar isn’t just lampooning the world of boy bands. It is equally caustic in its observations of the celebrity-obsessed media which fawn over the stars one moment and then turn on them the next. Again and again, as Conner makes a fool of himself, there will be a cut away to the offices of gossip site CMZ, where the staff are laughing like hyenas at his latest mishap.

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Certain characters and scenes here could have come straight from This Is Spinal Tap. Conner’s disastrous, genital squashing costume changes rekindle memories of Spinal Tap’s bass player getting stuck inside a pod. Bill Hader’s roadie, whose hobby is “flatlining” (inducing near-death experiences in which his heart stops beating) and Sarah Silverman’s very jaded and opportunistic publicist are stock types who would fit easily enough into any other music biz mockumentary from any other era.

The plot line here is also very familiar. Popstar is yet another story about a band that has split up in acrimonious circumstances and whose founder members have vowed they won’t get back together again until hell freezes over. The Style Boyz were childhood friends but now Conner’s estranged and embittered partner Lawrence has retreated to the rural heartland to start a new life as a farmer and wood carver.

This enables the filmmakers to contrast the gaudy, bling-filled opulence of Conner’s life with the Waltons-like simplicity in which his old bandmate now lives. The third member of the band, Owen, tries forlornly to get them back together, using tricks he learned from kids’ movie The Parent Trap to do so.

Popstar doesn’t surprise us very much. We know that Conner is bound to get his comeuppance but that, as his manager predicts with Zen-like wisdom, he will rise and fall and rise (and fall) again, just like “a wave”. Perhaps that is why the film did only modest business at the US box office. Nonetheless, it has a wit and zest that few other music mockumentaries possess – and, in the long run, that should help it soon to achieve cult status at the very least.

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