‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’ Stops Short of Mocumentary Greatness

The Lonely Island’s penchant for playing the softer side of satire smooths over potential pettiness in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping in stops short style.

Say what you will about the comedy trio The Lonely Island; these guys know how to have fun. The group, comprised of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone have made a career out of playful extremes, lampooning musical trends while playing into the pop culture machine from which these trends derive. Their best works – “I’m On a Boat”, “Lazy Sunday”, the one about premature pleasure – are parodies so polished that ridicule and reality become a single asinine earworm, often accompanied by equally outlandish music videos.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re able to snag pop talent like Rihanna and T-Pain to further this practice, but the true selling point behind The Lonely Island remains a desire to have their cake and eat it too: to mock modern musicians while secretly pining to applaud their designer shoes. Technically speaking, they carry all the attributes of parody but in a far less hostile approach. Not surprisingly, this is where the trio find themselves with the mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

Deriving its title from the Justin Bieber documentary, Never Say Never, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoppinglands somewhere between the Bieber film and a raunchy Behind the Music episode. The story follows Connor4Real (Samberg), former Style Boyz frontman and current pop music phenomenon (based on the strength of his slyly titled solo album, Thriller, Also). Postured to reflect a tough, tattooed image, the outlandish rapper spends more time insisting he’s down-to-earth (as with the Adam Levine-assisted single “I’m So Humble”) than he does trying to craft decent songs. Such responsibilities were previously the forte of former Style Boyz members Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), but that ship sailed long ago due to creative differences and a nasty breakup.

Now, Connor’s career is on the skids after a flopped sophomore effort, and the entertainer goes into panic mode with ill-advised advertising deals (mirroring U2’s infamous iTunes fiasco), over-the-top stage antics (including a Lady Gaga array of costume changes). Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping passed off as a tour documentary.

These silly tangents help set up the project’s contradicting tone. On one hand, Connor is an amalgamation of modern music’s worst tendencies, repressed in maturity but monetarily able to do whatever he wants. He is a case study of true obliviousness, spending his free time inventing catchphrases, defecating in the Anne Frank house, and dissing the Mona Lisa. You know, because it’s fun. On the other hand, Samberg’s lead performance manages to defy mean-spirited expectations, instead choosing to expose the immature kid lurking beneath the tattoos and hashtags.

A pro at playing likable goofballs on both the small (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and big (Hot Rod) screens, Samberg’s puppy-dog persona keeps the viewer emotionally invested, especially when Connor’s reaction to online critique opens up a moment of shameless sympathy. Of course, with a -4 out of 10 on Pitchfork, anyone and everyone could use a little loving. Where most scathing satire would’ve been content to point and laugh, this film dares the viewer to empathize amidst the jokes.

Pointing and laughing are still prevalent, though it’s through social media in this particular case. Branding, sharing, and commenting are prevalent in modern culture, and co-directors Schaffer and Taccone are more aware of this than most. Having gained fame through the internet in the mid-2000s, The Lonely Island members put this knowledge to fun use: taking jabs at Snapchat, YouTube, and TMZ. Whenever Connor screws up, TMZ briefly gloats like a Greek chorus, reminding the viewer that gossip is as fleeting as the trends it tries to capitalize on.

All jabs come quickly, if not concisely, and they maintain a pace so breathless that it rarely takes time to reflect on a punch line – good or bad. While these short-sighted send-ups may not age well in the years to come, Schaffer and Taccone strive to capture the lunacy of the now, and they do an accurate job for now.

Real-life celebrities also get in on the act, documenting the Connor4Real story with just the right blend of sincerity and silliness. Bypassing the bored demeanors that diminished cameos in Entourage (2015) and Zoolander 2 (2016), the guests in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feel organically placed. They range from Simon Cowell’s concert production praise to Usher’s fandom of the Style Boyz single “Donkey Roll.” Mariah Carey, RZA, and Ringo Starr also make tongue-in-cheek appearances, adding chuckle-worthy codas to Connor’s media meltdown.

However, as previously mentioned, The Lonely Island’s penchant for playing the softer side of satire holds cheap attacks back, smoothing over any potential pettiness with a soft-centered style. Instead of demonizing TMZ or targets like the scheming rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), the filmmakers ensure everyone is heard, understood, and forgiven.

Predictably, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping brightest moments happen onstage, where a series of terrible song topics tumble right into The Lonely Island wheelhouse. Whether crafting a homophobic anthem for gay marriage (“Equal Rights”) or comparing a sexual tryst to the death of Osama Bin Laden (“Finest Girl”), the film’s soundtrack comes closest to evoking offensive content. But even in their political incorrectness, the trio never makes the joke about any one particular group or person, instead reflecting the ignorance of such ideas onto themselves.

Schaffer and Taccone play up these established strengths of musical comedy, relying on their experiences on Saturday Night Live to drive the pace at all times. However, in keeping with the show’s hit-or-miss format, moments like the awkward “Ibitha” track or Justin Timberlake’s creeper chef come dangerously close to the worst of SNL’s recurring sketches. It doesn’t do too much damage here, but the group should look to refine it in future projects.

This inconsistency and reluctance to go the extra mile ultimately keep Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping from ascending to mockumentary greatness. Given the genre, comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap are inevitable, but The Lonely Island doesn’t create, nor do they attempt to create, a parody on a par with Rob Reiner’s efforts. Instead, the trio delivers a project that cherry-picks satirical elements and mixes them into their own distinct brand of comedy. No more, no less.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is no classic, but like the Top 40 radio tracks it seeks to emulate, it will go down smoothly and provide a memorable melody even after it has left the charts.

RATING 6 / 10