The best “mockumentaries” – This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind – pull off a neat trick. They tend to endear you to the characters they poke fun at, slyly subverting types and tropes while remaining affectionate in the process. The fitfully hilarious Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the second cinematic outing by The Lonely Island guys (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone), produced by Judd Apatow, aims at similar satirical heights as those classics, but can’t quite pull it off. It’s this lack of affection that keeps a very funny film from being great.
Popstar’s general approach lampoons the recent spate of hagiographic documentaries like Katy Perry: Part of Me and (of course) Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which combine “Behind The Music” talking head interviews with concert footage, videos from a tour, and more intimate moments. Written by all three and directed by Schaffer and Taccone, Popstar uses the form to needle those folks, but also to satirize the entirety of modern, YouTube celebrity culture – some jokes are aimed directly at The Beebs, but the heartiest laughs are rooted in a more general atmosphere of overexposure and self-mythologizing hype.
Samberg plays Connor4Real, a solo artist who was the breakout star of an earlier trio, also featuring Schaffer and Taccone, called the Style Boyz. Evoking both the Beasties and ‘N Sync, the Style Boyz were enormously influential in their time, as a long string of real-life luminaries tell us. (It would ruin some of the fun to name too many of these cameos and brief appearances, but a quick perusal of Popstar’s extensive cast-list will give you an idea.)
Like Justin Timberlake in ‘N Sync, Beyoncé in Destiny’s Child, or, well, Andy Samberg in The Lonely Island, Connor was the member of the ensemble chosen for attention by the fans. Branching out as “Connor4Real”, he’s taken the world by storm, amassing legions of fans and hangers-on. His former band mate Owen (Taccone) has risen with him, as a DJ who does nothing but hit play on an iPod, while third member Lawrence (Schaffer), alienated and betrayed, has abandoned the music biz to become a farmer in Colorado.
Very much like This Is Spinal Tap, Popstar follows Connor4Real’s most recent tour, which gradually shifts from disappointing sales number to outright embarrassing disaster. His manager (unsung hero of the film, Tim Meadows), his publicist (Sarah Silverman), and his entourage try to keep things afloat, while Connor makes terrible decision after terrible decision.
Connor4Real’s awkwardly public fall from grace involves tone-deaf songs, the addition of aggressive (and better-selling) rap star Hunter The Hungry to the bill (Chris Redd, fiercely committing to the ludicrous role), a stunt marriage to girlfriend Ashley (Imogen Poots) that somehow results in the singer Seal being mauled by wolves, a Daft Punk-influenced helmet, and an ill-fated line of kitchen appliances that play his songs when you use them. The joke is not just that Connor4Real sells out – if you don’t, he reminds Owen, people will just assume no one asked you – but that his compromises so routinely blow up in his face.
Much of this can be very funny, but there still seems to be something missing in the depiction – namely, that heart that animates the Christopher Guest projects. In the end, the team is reunited, and it’s actually quite sweet, but so much of the humor seems rooted in laughing down at these guys.
The lack of affection for the material is most evident in the songs, where you’d expect the film would be funniest. You’d be mistaken. There are definitely laughs, for instance, in the LGBT-anthem “Equal Rights”, a Macklemore parody in which Connor4Real’s support for equality becomes increasingly tinged with assurances that, no, he is not, himself, gay, just to clarify. But the joke – both its premise and target – seems a little easy. (And does anyone love Macklemore? I guess they’re out there, but I feel like Pauline Kael talking about Nixon voters: “Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”) Connor’s wildly inappropriate single comparing his sexual prowess to the military killing bin Laden doesn’t fare all that much better – you laugh at the central conceit, and then politely wait for the song to end. Popstar starts to drag in places, sometimes mid-song, which ideally wouldn’t be a problem for a film that clocks in at 87 minutes and doesn’t even feature all that many songs.
Of course, these are meant to be terrible, showcasing how incredibly out-of-touch the doofus protagonist has become. But compared to Spinal Tap’s idiot commitment to their bad songs (which are often “good,” in their way – seriously, “Sex Farm Woman” is an awesome tune), the terribleness overshadows any sense that the songwriters or performers believe in it. That goofy, endearing quality is missing, and on-stage Samberg seems to be an amalgam of caricatures of people The Lonely Island holds in low regard. It can be funny, but it would be better if they liked the stuff they were mocking.
As a result, Popstar has a strange shape – it’s funniest when other people besides the central crew are on screen, and sweetest when it focuses on the relationships off-stage rather than through the music these guys make and the personae they adopt.
The sheer overload of cameos from celebrities waxing nostalgic about the rise of the Style Boyz becomes its own joke – it’s amusing, then it’s repetitive, then it’s gone on for so long it becomes hilarious again. Bill Hader makes the most of a brief appearance as a roadie who is obsessed with the largely forgotten 1990 film Flatliners, even casually dropping the name of its Director of Photography in conversation. (This is doubly amusing in that real-life Hader seems to be something of a cinephile, too.) Maya Rudolph is also wonderfully, briefly inane as a corporate sales rep, while Will Arnett almost steals the movie in his two scenes as a cackling, soda-swilling Harvey Levin stand-in for some bottom-feeding TMZ-style outfit.
Arnett more or less specializes in embodying such loathsome characters. But Samberg’s at his best when he’s exhibiting a goofy, clueless charm – something Popstar allows him to do only sporadically. Connor4Real’s incredulousness at his tanking numbers and inability to notice he is being put on by his army of yes-men is a little too Zoolander at points, but it’s still much better than the sub-Family Guy joke in which he takes a shit in the Anne Frank house and then mimics Jim Carrey’s “Don’t go in there!” as he exits the bathroom (an on-the-nose elided reference to Justin Bieber’s adventures in Amsterdam and Miami). At the beginning and end of Popstar, we get to see the three band mates and friends together, and there’s a sweetness and familiarity to their interactions that would’ve benefited the entire middle section of the movie.
Still, when Popstar is on, it’s really on, and the way in which it constructs Connor’s narrative to skewer celebrity culture more generally is inspired more often than not. Unsurprisingly to fans of their previous film Hot Rod or their videos, it looks incredibly good, perfectly capturing the tics and conventions of the media it mocks and filling the frame with as many visual jokes as verbal ones. One additionally amusing aspect of The Lonely Island’s cinematic outings is how much they don’t half-ass it: the modest Hot Rod, for instance, was shot by Andrew Dunn, a DP with plenty of mainstream prestige credentials, while, in Popstar, Brandon Trost continues to make ridiculous comedies look unusually pretty.
All of which is to say: Popstar has so much going for it that it’s a shame it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Like all of the things Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone produce, it’s more than good enough to ensure a cult following down the road, but this one could’ve been great with a few tiny tweaks. Instead, it’s “merely” hilarious. That’s still pretty good.
In closing, and after all this talk of affection for the material, here’s one that just can’t get old. A sick beat, film-nerd jokes, and a love letter to Michael Bolton’s outsized ridiculousness. If you can’t make it out to Popstar today, you always have the option of watching this 20 times in a row.