If you’re going to make a joke song, at least make it a good song. That was the sentiment the Coen Brothers had when writing “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and if The Lonely Island were around in 1960s Greenwich Village, they might’ve recorded just that. As far as fake joke bands go, no one gets more studio star power and indelible hooks to go along with their ridiculous lyrics about jizzing in pants or dicks in boxes. They do hilarious comedy but also make great music.
And in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” they’re singing about fucking Osama bin Laden and why the Mona Lisa is “an overrated piece of shit” without forgetting that they still need to make hits.
“Popstar” is the first official movie of the satirical rap trio made up of “SNL’s” Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (the three star and co-wrote the film, with Taccone and Schaffer directing), and while it could just be their fourth album, it often plays as a Millennial version of “This is Spinal Tap.” The film’s documentary realistic style functions as a media critique as much as it does a genre parody, and it’s often so absurd it’s genius.
Samberg plays Conner4Real, one of the biggest and most influential hip hop artists in the world. Questlove, 50 Cent and Ringo Starr all sincerely confess in testimonials how his music changed their lives. The film has an autobiographical bent in that Conner got his start as part of a hip hop trio called the Style Boyz, three nerdy kids who just wanted to make music and became superstars. Conner goes solo and has a mega hit, but for his second album “Connquest,” he rejects the help of his fellow Style Boyz Owen (Taccone), now Conner’s DJ via an iPod, and Lawrence (Schaffer), who has now become a farmer and whittler in Wyoming. The documentary crew following Conner observes how both his album and tour flop as a result.
It’s not lost on the film that Samberg is 37 but plays a heartthrob who could be Justin Bieber’s age. But Samberg has an endearing, boyish charisma that he milks at every beat. He’s so confidently cool in all his mannerisms, but he’ll throw his arms out or toss his hair back in such a way that we both know he’s awesome and pretending to be a guy trying to look awesome. One song with (hologram) Adam Levine on guest vocals, “I’m So Humble,” seems to comment on how effortlessly cool he’s acting while clearly trying too hard.
Conner lives in a bubble of a Yes Men entourage, and his songs only call attention to his ignorance. One song claims to be about tolerance for same sex marriage, but in between Pink riding and singing on top of a unicorn, he interjects that he’s “Not Gay” along with quick, manly nouns like “pick up trucks” and “hot wings” to prove it.
All these songs have the outlandish production values of any one of The Lonely Island’s iconic SNL Digital Shorts, and you can imagine that perhaps multiple albums worth of material got poured into this one 86 minute movie. But what makes “Popstar” stand out as a film beyond just being a visual album (hey, if Beyonce can do it with “Lemonade”) are its merits as a commentary on pop, celebrity culture in the 21st Century.
Conner’s benchmark for success is that his album will go Gold, a never-mentioned reminder that no one buys albums anymore. He’s a compulsive oversharer on social media and believes that makes him genuine. His manager’s (Tim Meadows) bright idea is to have Conner roll out his album to play when you open the door of your refrigerator (“Nowadays if you don’t sell out, people will wonder if anyone even asked you”). And Will Arnett has a few show stealing moments riffing on TMZ’s Harvey Levin, cackling at nothing in particular and drinking constantly from obscenely sized coffee jugs.
Of course “Popstar” has perfectly bizarre, random and vulgar humor too. Conner proposes to his actress girlfriend Ashley September (Imogen Poots, hilariously ditzy) in a stunt that ends up with soul singer Seal attacked by wolves. One ingenious scene could be staged exactly the same on the radio. And what would a Lonely Island movie be without an unexpected Justin Timberlake cameo?
One of Conner’s signature career moments was a guest track he laid down called “The Catchphrase Verse.” “He was just using so many words I never heard,” says an astonished 50 Cent, including the winner “Patrick Stewart Money.” Of course, we’ve heard all these words before, and The Lonely Island have been using a variation of “The Catchphrase Verse” for years, staging absurd mashups of nouns and adjectives in order to make something dope.
For how many goofy, half-baked, sketch-sized ideas The Lonely Island pack into “Popstar,” this might just be their masterpiece.
3 ½ stars