When The Lonely Island made their 100th Digital Short at Saturday Night Live, on paper it had the makings of one of their best. The anticipated short was a over-packed flurry of jokes, strange cameos – including Justin Bieber – references, and a fun song. But even with all these elements tied together, the short was a burst of fun, yet ultimately forgettable. Technically considered the first Lonely Island film (although Hot Rod’s certainly should count), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is like that short, fun in the moment with all the right pieces there, but about as forgettable.
While the best music industry parodies work as a slightly exaggerated version of the genre that is being lampooned, like This Is Spinal Tap or Walk Hard, Popstar’s source material is about as ridiculous as Lonely Island’s version. Popstar’s Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is a thinly veiled Justin Bieber parody, with the film’s format a biopic identical to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
In Popstar, we get a quick rundown of Conner4Real’s origins, which also feels very close to real life. Conner4Real got his start in a band known as the Style Boyz, a group comprised with his childhood friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer) – which is clearly based on the origins of Lonely Island, especially considering that they’ve known each other since the trio were kids. Before too long though, Conner4Real breaks out and goes for a solo career, much in the way Lonely Island friend Justin Timberlake did with N*Sync. Conner4Real’s first album Thriller, Also was a huge success, but with his follow up album Connquest on its way, his world starts to fall apart. An idea to get his new song to play inside household appliances makes for the most hated gimmick since U2’s free album. His second record gets a -4 from Pitchfork and his new Tyler, the Creator-tyle opening act Hunter (Chris Redd) is starting to upstage his tour.
With everything going wrong, the world seems more interesting in getting the Style Boyz back together. Conner4Real is completely against the idea, as is Lawrence, who has moved to a Colorado farm after the bitter breakup, even though Owen – now his live DJ, who only needs an aged iPod – is completely ready for the three friends to get back together.
The music within Popstar works as an eventual fourth album for Lonely Island. As is true for the band, the best songs within Popstar are when the band is directly parodying a certain musician or style. Conner4Real’s first single “I’m So Humble” is the most immediately catchy of the film’s tracks, not only because it’s easy to see almost any pop star actually singing the track, but because it’s also a damn good song, while “Equal Rights” works because of how it directly makes fun of Macklemore. But too often, the songs in Popstar decide to just go insane with their idea, like with “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” where Conner4Real sings about meeting a girl that wants him to “fuck her harder than the military fucked Bin Laden” or there are many songs that are simply just lists of ridiculous or mundane things, like Lawrence’s “Things In My Jeep,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Like the shorts themselves, the music is hit or miss, which isn’t exactly what you want with a film where the focus in music.
It easy to say that comedians who go from sketch to film are simply stringing together a bunch of their skits into feature length, but that’s pretty much what Popstar does. Thankfully it does that hilariously, but the film does often feel too episodic and pieced together from random ideas. Joan Cusack makes an appearance as Conner4Real’s hardy partying mom that’s riding her son’s coattails – which looks as if it’ll have importance somewhere down the line – but she then disappears completely. Bill Hader pops up as a guitar tech now and again; while Will Forte is shown on screen, yet doesn’t even get a single line. There’s clearly more on the cutting room with these characters and Popstar strongly feels like huge swaths of these characters and story lines have been cut out.
For the most part, Popster thankfully knows how to utilize the incredible cameos it pulls out, like documentary interviews by DJ Khaled, Nas, and Ringo Starr. Of course, there are great appearances from The Lonely Island’s usual suspects. But stealing the show is the TMZ parody CMZ, which features Will Arnett as the boss to a crew that features Chelsea Peretti, Eric Andre, and Mike Birbiglia. Their segments are almost completely unnecessary, but provide some of the film’s absolute best moments.
Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone – who wrote the film and the latter two directed – have made a tonally perfect parody of the pop music genre, even if it’s topic is such an easy target that some of the jokes almost seem too obvious at times, or frankly a little late for parody. The music is fine, the cameos are well used, and Popstar is continuously very funny, yet it has the amount of substance that the Digital Shorts contained, which isn’t much. But isn’t that exactly what pop music and the Digital Shorts do best, by giving us quick snippets of fun with little to sink our teeth into? But if this is Lonely Island’s first attempt at a film, I can’t wait for the Style Boyz to reunite again for another.