‘Popstar’ Stops Short of Mocumentary Greatness

Popstar pokes the softer side of celebrity satire.

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.

RATING 6 / 10