For its first thirty minutes or so, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” feels like the great comedy you did not know you needed in your life. That is to say, it feels like the “This is Spinal Tap” for the Justin Bieber generation. Credited as a “Lonely Island” film, it is the work of the three musically adept comic minds behind the “Saturday Night Live” digital shorts that were for a long time a mainstay and highlight of that comedy series. The LI front man was, and remains, Andy Samberg, the trio member who was also a full-time cast member of “SNL.” Their song pastiches combine raunchy humor (you may recall “D**k in a Box”) with more-clever-than-normal wordplay for stuff so raunchy-humor-based, with a lot of genuine absurdism all tied together by beats and melodies that are as credible as those in, you know, genuine contemporary pop songs. Some of the songs here are pretty jaw-dropping, and at first the frame constructed around them seems pretty can’t-miss.
Samberg plays Conner4Real, a pop star who, as explained in fake-rock-doc-minus-Marty-DiBergi-style, started in a Beastie Boys-like trio called “The Style Boyz.” Depicted doing their big hit “Karate Boy,” they are of course rather spectacularly inept, and their ineptitude is made rather funnier by real-life cameos from the likes of Questlove and Nas testifying to their vital influence—“Are you kidding me, that song changed my life,” says Nas, with sufficient conviction to earn him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. But it’s clear, at least to some unknown contingent, that Conner is the breakout star of the group, and the Style Boyz—the other two are played by the other Lonely Island fellows, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone; they co-wrote the movie with Samberg, and take the directorial credit with Samberg as producer—disband. Owen (Taccone) becomes the DJ for Conner’s solo act—he has the whole set on an iPod, which he also uses to listen to audiobooks on the road—while Schaffer’s Lawrence becomes “a farmer” and carver of very awful wood sculptures. (Schaffer wears a beard so egregiously fake that I was convinced that it was itself a sight gag he would peel off on-camera at some point. But no.)
“Popstar”’s story begins with Conner prepping the release of his followup album to his solo debut, which he titled “Thriller, Also.” Conner is quite the dimbulb, and Samberg plays him with the trademark sweet goofiness that’s his most reliable performing mode. The movie cheerfully skewers pretty much every convention of pop music manufacturing. Of his new album “ConnQuest,” Conner says “We’re gonna be surprise releasing it next Thursday.” His big artistic breakthrough is described as his pioneering of an “all-catchphrase” guest rap on another artist’s song. And more, and more, with expert comic bits executed not just by the supporting cast proper, which includes Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman, but also by a near-endless stream of cameo performers drawn from Samberg’s circles in both music and comedy and the place on the showbiz Venn Diagram where they meet. The movie also happens to contain one of the sharpest, and most pointed, send-ups of TMZ I’ve ever seen. And then there are the songs, one a “sincere” plea for marital equality that quickly devolves into Conner’s own perhaps-protesting-too-much declaration of his own sexual preferences. The “live” version of a number referencing Osama bin Laden is also a treat.
But, the movie’s storyline is, truth to tell, a little thin. It’s pretty much the same scenario as the aforementioned “This is Spinal Tap,” with different structural stresses. That is, the “band” in this movie breaks up pretty early on, but the quixotic nature of Conner’s, um, new direction is so plain that certain inevitable scenes feel more inevitable than actually earned, which was never a problem with “This is Spinal Tap.” And there are peaks and valleys to the movie that are too noticeable. The movie’s a tidy 90 minutes or so, but it starts to sag at the hour-mark and doesn’t get its oomph back for a while. All that said, though, what’s good about this movie is funny, and refreshing, enough to make the dry spots feel more tolerable in retrospect. I’m already hoping for a lot of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release.