Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of the more surprisingly funny comedies to come to cinemas in recent years. A Spinal Tap for the digital media age, Popstar makes use of internal references and celebrity cameos while not solely relying on them, producing a comedy that will, I think, stand the test of time.
Popstar takes the format of a tour documentary covering the rise and eventual fall of Conner Friel, or “Conner4Real” (Andy Samberg), a combination of Justin Bieber and Macklemore with the ego of Kanye West. Having just come off of a massive worldwide tour, Conner goes back into the studio to record his sophomore album, only to have it – and his subsequent tour – flop big time. The film takes us the behind-the-scenes of Conner’s eventual meltdown, introducing us to his roadies, managers, hangers-on, and former bandmates from The Style Boyz (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone), at least one of whom has not forgiven Conner for going solo. The film is a mash-up of styles that does more than just parody Bieber – it creates a recognizable character in his own right, driven by ego and a desperate need to be liked by everyone, as he comes to the realization that he was happier making music with his pals.
Samberg is weirdly sympathetic as the delusional Conner, a talented kid who has bought into his own hype. He’s horrified to learn that the fleeting nature of celebrity means that the beloved superstar of one minute is the derided YouTube flop of the next. While the faux earnestness of every minute threatens to grate, Samberg gives his character an underlying likability where he might otherwise have been repellant. By the time we get to his inevitable downfall and desperate attempts to revitalize his flagging celebrity, we feel more sympathy than not for Conner. We root for him to get back on his feet and rediscover the things that he loved, with the friends he should have valued.
Popstar is a mashed-up parody of pop music and cultural trends that eventually transcends simple referentiality. Celebrity cameos from the media world come in and out of the film without derailing it – it’s amusing to watch Usher, Adam Levine, and Ringo Starr wax eloquent on the influence of Conner and the Style Boyz, while Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, and Tim Meadows play it straight for some of the biggest laughs. The expert handling of the cameos is one of the elements that lifts Popstar above what it could have been – a bargain-basement parody – by creating a believable world for Conner and his bandmates to inhabit. Conner is integrated into this universe, rather than a commenter on it.
Then, of course, there’s the music. Popstar has the heavy musical talent of Lonely Island evident in every track. One of the funniest is the Macklemore parody Equal Rights, in which Conner advocates for gay marriage while loudly proclaiming that he’s definitely not gay. Like the best of Weird Al (who also has a cameo), the songs are entertaining and hilarious even if you’re unaware of the internal references, and actually catchy pieces of music beyond their parody.
This Blu-ray release boasts a host of special features, including a series of deleted scenes that flesh out some of the secondary characters, including Joan Cusack’s epic turn as Conner’s mom. It’s a shame that some of these were cut out, especially as they provide a showcase for a number of the talented female comedians who are reduced to mere walk-ons in the actual film. Sarah Silverman and Maya Rudolph both get their moments in the sun, while several of the other characters – like Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager – receive greater character development.
Further special features include “Fun at CMZ!”, the brilliant TMZ parody spots peppered throughout the film that at times hit a little too close to the reality of tabloid coverage. A gag reel – too short, but hilarious – outtakes, extended scenes, and an extensive filmmaker commentary round out the disc. A series of full-length music videos provides even more Lonely Island, if you just want to get your fix.
Despite a strong critical reception, Popstar didn’t do the business at the box office that it might have hoped for. But this film has staying power. It succeeds at both being a commentary on contemporary celebrity culture, and an entertaining comedy unlikely to get tired. Put the Blu-ray on your shelf next to This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. And remember to never stop never stopping.