Thursday, September 29, 2016

Don't Stop Beliebin'

Year: 2016
Director: Jorma Taccone & Akiva Schaffer
Cast: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’ve never been a fan of The Lonely Island. I think many of you probably wouldn’t blame me for that. Their celebrity-packed rap-sung songs featured on SNL were designed for 12-year-old boys to get detention for singing them in the classroom. It’s no beef against them, that’s just not my demographic.

So imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch their movie and it was actually kind of awesome. The cumbersomely titled Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was directed by Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer (the Lonely Island guys on either side of Andy Samberg), and written by them and Sandberg, so this is a pure, undistilled vehicle for their comic stylings, but perhaps the focus required to make a feature-length film brought out the best in them.

Their talent is out of the box, so to speak.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a mockumentary, a comedy genre that has finally been reclaimed from the network sitcom trenches. It follows Conner Freal (Andy Samberg), a young pop savant who got his start in a boy band called the Style Boyz along with his friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). He has now struck out on a solo career under the name Conner4Real and had massive success with his first album. The film picks up just before his second album drops. Owen is now the DJ on his world tour and Lawrence has abandoned the scene to become a farmer and grumble about Conner claiming credit for a famous verse he wrote.

We join Conner, his manager Harry (Tim Meadows), and his publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman) as the album drops… Straight off the face of the Earth. It turns out that abandoning his songwriter and beat mixer has resulted in a widely hated album, leaving Conner and his team scrambling to pick up the pieces.

Oh, and his team also includes Bill Hader for like 5 seconds.

Popstar is very much a Lonely Island film. Absurdity and filth rub shoulders here like they’re the finalists in an All-County Shoulder Rubbing Contest. It can be very juvenile and sophomoric, but if that’s your style, it hits some spectacular highs. My biggest problem with the trio has typically been the music itself, and Conner4Real’s tracks do share some of their biggest weaknesses (a tendency to repeat the central joke until it has been jackhammered into oblivion and a certain lack of musicality in the verses), but they frequently transcend themselves to become biting pop culture satire.

My personal favorite track is “Equal Rights,” a scorching parody of Macklemore’s “Same Love” that highlights the hypocrisy of straight white men inserting themselves into minority corners. And that sense of no-holds-barred mockery spreads throughout the entire film. It’s very Of The Now, so certain jokes won’t translate well even a year form now (a joke about hoverboards catching fire is already a bit dated), but the best kind of satire is birthed from a very specific cultural context.

Popstar’s net is cast wide, and almost no piece of cultural ephemera escapes its laser gaze: Justin Bieber (an easy target, and Conner4Real’s most obvious analogue), reality shows, awards shows, surprise album releases, vapid celebrity couples, TMZ (with a particularly funny Will Arnett cameo), and even the movie Flatliners for some reason. Plus, there’s more than a little bit of the real life narrative of The Lonely Island snuck in for flavor. It even goes so far as to mock the very type of movie that it is, all while skewering the self-involved social media culture that has been defining the charts in the 2010’s.

You can find more of such criticisms on my Twitter page.

That’s not to say that Popstar is a life-changing comedy. It’s not. It’s frequently just as shallow as the artists it parodies, but it’s a mostly intelligent piece of light fun that breezes by without overstaying its welcome. Sarah Silverman and Maya Rudolph shine on the sidelines, it keeps the laughs coming, and only in the final shot does the trio finally indulge in the worst kind of over-the-top absurdity that has come to define their brand.

If you’re up for a heaping helping of R-rated frat boy antics, then see Popstar immediately. It’s a shame the box office kind of ignored this one, because it certainly deserves better. It’s an excellent light snack of a comedy, and that should never be underestimated.

TL;DR: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a surprisingly sharp satire of modern pop culture.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 776

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