A light and frivolous comedy with a pitch-perfect recreation of modern celebrity culture, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping need only present a tiny exaggeration of the lifestyle of a coddled music industry star to count as satire. In the guise of a concert tour documentary done in a self-mythologizing slick puff piece style, a la Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or Katy Perry: Piece of Me, complete with talking head acclaim from colleagues and clouds of social media reaction flying out of the screen, this movie is too cozy and celebratory to be a devastating satire. It knows its lead is dumb and shallow, and wants him to succeed anyway. But it’s smart, and totally dead-on, in its evocation of our buzzing echo chamber, with so many outlets and avenues chattering, demanding access to celebrities’ lives every hour of every day. To be a music icon these days is to be living your life as performance art, always on, oversharing taking the place of actual insight.
The movie invents the dim but apparently talented Connor4Real, an egotistical practitioner of the smooth falsetto pop/R&B with rap breaks the likes of Bieber and Justin Timberlake put out. Connor (Andy Samberg) rose to fame with his two childhood best friends (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) in the group Style Boyz, which was part Beastie Boys, part Backstreet Boys. Eventually he went solo, while the others became a D.J. and a farmer, an unpleasant split that nonetheless resulted in a hit album. (He called it Thriller, Also.) Now, as the movie begins, he’s about to go on tour for his second album, and it is terrible, full of songs like a belated and self-aggrandizing marriage equality anthem that constantly reminds the listener Connor isn’t gay, a booming braggart’s club beat about how humble he is, and a filthy number of elaborate metaphor comparing lovemaking to the death of Bin Laden. The movie concerns Connor’s slowly dawning sense of his waning cultural relevancy and his desperate moves to grab it back.
We’re told the songs he’s promoting are terrible, but really they’re insanely catchy, put together by The Lonely Island, the stars, directors, and co-writers of this movie and the comedy rap group responsible for the terrific Digital Shorts from their time on SNL. Of course the guys behind such memorable music video parodies as “Lazy Sunday” and “I’m On a Boat” would be smart enough to write songs so beautifully stupid. The music in the movie is consistent with those earlier parodies, with elaborately produced videos and stage performances that are smartly constructed silliness, crude lyrics with melodies cleverly matching existing popular genres. Still, we get the idea these are songs no one wants, especially after a disastrous corporate cross-promotion gets them beamed into every refrigerator in the country. That’s a funny swipe at U2’s last album’s sudden appearance, and a good jab at synergistic corporate-sponsored album releases of all kinds. As Connor says, “there’s no such thing as selling out anymore!”
Connor’s tour tanks as ticket sales are low. To make matters worse, the album isn’t exactly flying off shelves. He’s just not the celebrity he used to be. The movie follows his increasingly desperate attempts to get attention for himself, trying to maintain his lavish bubble and protect his thin skin until he can hear the roar of uncritical success once more. (Maybe if that doesn’t work he could run for president?) It becomes a slap-happy lampooning of the modern media landscape, a predictable movie about how predictable a pop news rise-fall-rise narrative can be. He goes on The Tonight Show and gets suckered into a nostalgia act. He tries to get E! to cover his impending engagement live on the air. (His girlfriend (Imogen Poots): “Aw, you invited the press!”) He Snapchats and tweets and vlogs, clearly emotionally troubled but egged on by all the chatter swirling around him, a cycle of scandals and photo-ops, manufactured mostly, but sometimes accidentally real, like a quick change that leaves him naked on stage for ten seconds. “A third of the way to Mars!” Connor shouts, in one his most Zoolander-like moments.
There’s nothing particularly serious about Popstar, which uses its laser-focused precision for playful surfaces on which to goof around, but it moves too quickly to be anything less than a good time. It’s chockablock with cameos, SNL vets making the most of tiny roles – Tim Meadows, Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and the like making memorable impressions – and music world legends – Ringo Starr, Questlove, Usher, and many, many, many more – playing brilliantly to or against their public personas. It just zips right along, through enabling entourages, crazy fans, wasteful lifestyle choices, pranks, paparazzi, chattering gossip programs, colliding camera crews, and concerts. My favorite moments, sparingly but cuttingly used, are a perfect parody of TMZ’s show, with Will Arnett an uncanny Harvey Levin type draped over a cubicle and cackling with his reporters. The movie is breathlessly ridiculous, never lingering too long on any one aspect of pop stardom, tightly packaged and efficiently silly. Is it a modern-day Spinal Tap? No. But it’s the closest thing to it.