No music mockumentary has really managed to reproduce This Is Spinal Tap’s comic mojo, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping gets closer than most to that subgenre-defining comedy’s mix of the dead-on and the over-the-top, even if it tends to go for quantity over quality. Part of that is format: Junky, social-media-age pop promo items in the Justin Bieber: Never Say Never mold don’t lend themselves to cringe-inducing set pieces the way all-access, fly-on-the-wall rock docs do. Still, directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone—who co-wrote the script and much of the music with their Lonely Island cohort, Andy Samberg—have a lot of fun with the hyperactive tone and tropes of reality TV-era celebrity, building to a backstage confrontation between rival stars who keep mixing up each other’s camera crews.
Popstar follows dolt pop-rapper Conner Friel (Samberg) as he sets off to promote his second album on an overblown world tour, complete with holograms, under-rehearsed costume changes, and—in one of the movie’s most Spinal Tap-esque physical gags—a Deadmau5-style LED headpiece that’s bright enough to disrupt air traffic and occasionally blasts the deafening foghorn sound effect from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds. Having first found success with the bucket-hat-wearing ’90s boy band The Style Boyz, Conner is seeing his solo stardom flag in the face of vicious reviews, slow sales, and a series of media disasters that range from a deal to have his album automatically installed into wi-fi-enabled kitchen appliances—a send-up of the iTunes fiasco for U2’s Songs Of Innocence—to getting caught shitting on the floor of the Anne Frank House.
It’s in Conner’s tabloid misadventures (wolf attacks, drunk hover-boarding, a bar fight with Martin Sheen, etc.) that Popstar gets surreal, sometimes cutting to a TMZ On TV-type bullpen, where Will Arnett’s Harvey Levin stand-in presides over a nightmarish limbo of cheap punchlines and oversize thermos mugs. But the bizarre peripheral characters—including a personal chef (Justin Timberlake) who lives to watch Conner eat and a roadie (Bill Hader, completely in his element) obsessed with Flatliners, “the Joel Schumacher film shot by Jan De Bont”—never really mask Popstar’s generic plot, which finds Conner’s DJ and former Style Boyz bandmate, Owen (Taccone), trying to reunite him with Lawrence (Schaffer), the estranged third Style Boy, like a child trying to get his divorced parents back together. (His plan is inspired by the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap.)
The reunion arc speaks to Taccone, Schaffer, and Samberg’s affection for these emotionally stunted characters; Conner and Owen act like middle-schoolers, while Lawrence—introduced resentfully showing the camera crew his failed woodshop projects—has matured into a surly teen during his years away from the spotlight. But their relationship is never as funny or interesting as the movie’s send-ups of celebrity brand puff pieces (complete with deadpan cameos from a mind-boggling array of musicians) and pop pretension. With its fascist cover art, Conner’s new album, ConnQuest, is a heap of comically awful ideas given the go-ahead by a personal army of yes men: a diss track against the Mona Lisa; a raunchy song that gets caught up in a metaphor about the killing of Osama Bin Laden; a belated pro-same-sex marriage anthem where two-thirds of the verses consist of Conner clarifying that he himself isn’t gay.
Some of it is warmed-over Spinal Tap, with an unheard-of negative Pitchfork review score replacing the earlier film’s “two-word review,” and Conner’s boasts about ConnQuest’s incoherent production (“over 100 producers”) as the movie’s answer to “these go to 11.” But it’s when Popstar lampoons the specifics of modern-day pop materialism (awkward social media endorsements, over-sharing, an obsession with branding and catchphrases) that it finds its most inspired gags. It’s also where it gets its darkest laughs, be in the throwaway shot of a depressed Conner crashing an ATV in his mansion, or the All About Eve subplot that involves his Tyler, The Creator-esque opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), a skateboarding prankster whose hijinks are punctuated with the crazed stare of a supervillain.