PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Popstar' Stops Short of Mocumentary Greatness

Popstar pokes the softer side of celebrity satire.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Director: Aktiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Cast: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
US Release Date: 2016-06-03

Say what you will about 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 group 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 mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

Deriving its title from the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never, Popstar lands somewhere in between the Bieber film and a raunchy episode of Behind the Music. The story follows Connor4Real (Samberg), former Style Boyz front man 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 actually 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), and this very film, 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 in 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 is still prevalent, though in this particular case, it’s through the form of social media. Branding, sharing, and commenting is prevalent in modern culture, and co-directors Schaffer and Taccone are more aware of this than most. Having gained fame through the internet themselves in the mid-2000s, The Lonely Island members put this knowledge to fun use: taking jabs at Snapchat, YouTube, and TMZ in the process. 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 quick, 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 simply strive to capture the lunacy of the now, and for now, they do an accurate job.

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 feel organically placed; ranging 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. But, as previously mentioned, the group’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 scheming rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), the filmmakers make sure everyone is heard, understood, and forgiven.

Predictably, the film’s brightest moments turn up 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. In keeping with the show’s hit-or-miss format, however, 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 it’s definitely something the group should look to refine in future projects.

This inconsistency, along with a reluctance to go the extra mile, ultimately keeps Popstar from ascending to mockumentary greatness. Comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap (1984) are inevitable given the genre, but The Lonely Island don’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. It’s no classic, but like the Top 40 radio tracks it seeks to emulate, Popstar will go down smooth and provide a memorable melody even after it has left the charts.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.