Back in 2007 Judd Apatow, the creative force behind hit comedies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, played the role of shepherd for a comedy that lampooned the music biopic. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story included segments that were in the style of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back but its main influences were Walk the Line and Ray. The comedy never found its audience outside of those that saw its brilliance in actually being a better music biopic than it was parodying. Flash forward to 2016 and Apatow has produced a new music comedy, only this time it is a pop music mockumentary. Much like Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap satirized heavy metal from across the Atlantic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping takes direct aim at today’s music industry where pop music leads the way.
The Lonely Island has been making music for years and the group’s “Digital Shorts” on Saturday Night Live have been among the most popular segments. Music videos for favorites “Dick in a Box” (featuring Justin Timberlake) and “Jack Sparrow” (featuring Michael Bolton) have racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube (“Sparrow” has more than 152 million!). Hit songs and catchy lyrics may make for viral hits but could the digital shorts lend themselves to a feature-length comedy?
The answer is yes. Fans of the collaborative team of Andy Samberg, Akiva Shaffer, and Jorma Taccone get a comedy where The Lonely Island are writing, producing and appearing on screen as the vintage boy band Style Boyz, a direct riff of the Beastie Boys. Then Samberg as Conner (aka Conner4Real) pulls a Timberlake and breaks away from the group to pursue a solo career. Former bandmate Owen (Taccone) tags along as his DJ, and Lawrence (Shaffer) relocates to Colorado and becomes a woodcarver.
At the start, Conner is preparing to release his second solo album CONNquest. His first went multi-platinum so there is added pressure and anticipation. But his latest is a departure from his first, incorporating more than 100 music producers to get the sound he wants. Let’s just say Conner’s management team is worried with first-week projections and try to make the best of a bad situation.
Using the mockumentary formula that worked so well with This is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Popstar allows the trio to go all out with their brand of music humor. Satirizing everything from TMZ to reality television shows to the problems that arise when a device comes loaded with an album you just can’t delete with ease.
Even if you aren’t hip enough to get all the references, the joke-to-laugh ratio is off the charts. Hopping from the Style Boyz to Conner’s solo breakthrough to his slow descent from popularity, which is not quite to the level of Ron Burgundy being caught in a glass case of emotion, but it hits the same beats of the lows we’ve seen on countless VH1 “Behind the Music” specials. Plus, Popstar is cameo-heavy to the point of overload; The Lonely Island have assembled more musicians than the supergroup USA for Africa recording of “We Are the World.” And those who aren’t playing themselves is a who’s who list of recognizable faces. Sarah Silverman, Imogen Poots, and Joan Cusack (all of whom play a role in Conner’s life) to name a few. There was even a place for Justin Timberlake in a small role.
Popstar is a mockumentary but by the time we arrive at the third act the documentary-style is dropped for narrative. Whether or not this was intentional is inconsequential as the comedy was not meant to be a legit doc; the ludicrous acts that transpire are too strange to be found as truth. But credit the trio going all out with the production in creating Conner’s live performances (including one highlighted by holograms of multiple Adam Levines) and his lavish lifestyle where his entourage is a bunch of “Yes” men on his payroll.
Andy Samberg is clearly the star, front and center, but the best surprise is of former Ladies Man Tim Meadows. As Conner’s manager (and the fourth member of Tony! Toni! Toné! – he was the Tony with a question mark at the end of his name – remember him?) Meadows has a few memorable exchanges, the best of which occurs near the end when he has a falling out with one of his other clients.
Popstar is the Lonely Island hitting the right comedy notes as it skewers today’s pop music with so many fun, catchy songs (“Karate Guy” is my jam!). Thirty years after This is Spinal Tap we may a music mockumentary that can be its successor. Do yourself a favor and revel in the absurdity. It will have you wanting to “Donkey Roll” in the aisle. Don’t know that is? You will.
Director: Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone Writer(s): Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone Notable cast: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Tim Meadows, Sarah Siverman, Imogen Poots
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He’s told that the position is his until he’s dead or if “The Boss” can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here’s the beer. Here’s the entertainment. Now have fun. That’s an order!