June 2, 2016
To understand where Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping works and where it doesn’t, I think you have to understand The Lonely Island.
At their core the trio, made up of sketch writers Andy Samberg, Akiva Shaffer and Jorma Taccone, is best known for SNL Digital Shorts (including “Lazy Sunday,” one of the first truly viral YouTube videos). As writers and performers, they excel at the kind of comedy where jokes pay off quickly and the laughs-per-minute number is high. They also bring a high enough production value in the execution of their product that, with the sound turned off, you may not know you’re watching something meant to be funny.
Written by all three members of the group with Shaffer and Taccone taking the directing reins, Popstar is framed as a Behind The Music-style documentary, following former boy-bander Conner4Real (Samberg) as he releases and promotes his sophomore solo effort. Coming off a massive success, Conner is shocked when the new album bombs, sending his personal and professional life into a tailspin.
As a fan of The Lonely Island, satirical social commentary and slickly produced pop music, I had no doubt I’d find Popstar entertaining. But would it actually be good? Could The Lonely Island take it beyond what could be accomplished in a three-minute sketch?
They can, but it takes a while to get there.
All the trappings of the mainstream pop music landscape (featured rappers! concert holograms! ridiculous entourages!) are on display and delivered with Christopher Guest-level straight faces. To its detriment, though, Popstar sometimes plays like a themed episode of Saturday Night Live – quick, everyone do a crazy character who might show up in the life of a popstar! – with short, funny scenes and an entire cast of cameos familiar to the SNL audience.
Just when the gags start to feel played out, Samberg’s flawless comedic timing and Shaffer and Taccone’s absolute charm in the third act bring life and sincerity to a story that had yet to find any genuine emotion.
The scenes take on an interesting meta quality as Conner defends his solo status to his two former best friends and bandmates. Samberg, Shaffer and Taccone are real-life childhood best friends who have found success as a trio, but Samberg is undeniably their unofficial front man. Watching their fictional counterparts navigate their group dynamic made me wonder if there was a bit of real-life group therapy happening in the script. There’s never been a whiff of ego-based controversy (or any other kind) around The Lonely Island, but the overlap in the relationships represented by both the actors and their characters added a depth that was pleasantly surprising.
Credit where credit is due, this is The Lonely Island’s movie from top to bottom, and it’s a solid effort. But I think it’s in this final act where producer Judd Apatow’s experience and influence is felt most directly. Apatow has perfected the balance of R-rated humor and frank emotion, and it’s only when Popstar is also able to strike that balance that the film is elevated beyond what The Lonely Island previously accomplished in their Digital Shorts.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
BONUS: Listen to Andy Samberg on the You Made It Weird podcast for lots of great background on The Lonely Island, his personal career trajectory and what it was like working with Judd Apatow (#313, April 2016).
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