In many ways, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feels like a movie more than 10 years in the making. It was 2005 when Andy Samberg first made the world aware of his rapping talents with a Digital Short for Saturday Night Live titled “Lazy Sunday,” and in the decade-plus since, the world has learned to embrace the funnyman—as well as his two musical cohorts, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone—as bonafide music celebrities. The trio’s rap group, The Lonely Island, has released two best-selling albums and produced a number of chart-topping singles (remember “I’m On A Boat”?), but all of that pales in comparison to what they have accomplished with their first big screen outing.
Structured as a mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping begins with a bit of a history lesson. Lifelong friends Conner (Samberg), Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) found fame and fortune after forming the hip-hop group the Style Boyz in the mid-1990s. Before long, Conner was picked by the media to more or less serve as the face of the group, which in turn led the vocalist to abandon his friends and the legacy they had built together in order to launch his own solo career. Lawrence, feeling under-appreciated after penning Conner’s hits and receiving no credit for his work, left the industry and started a farm in the middle of nowhere. Owen, still fiercely devoted to his friend, stuck by Conner’s side and became his personal DJ.
Conner’s first album, Thriller, Also, is an instant success. The record sells over four-million copies worldwide and establishes the former Style Boy as a global pop music sensation. Feeling his reign over the industry is unstoppable, Conner hires a documentary film crew to capture his life in the time before, during, and immediately following the release of his highly-anticipated sophomore record. When the album flops, the cameras hired to boost Conner’s career capture the fallout. Conner tries his best to shake off his critics, but he soon becomes consumed with the desire to reclaim his pop music throne. This leads to a series of ill-advised decisions, including a horribly misguided corporate partnership, gimmick-heavy live shows, and an over-reliance on the “yes men” that surround him.
Conner’s songs double as the latest material from The Lonely Island, and they’re shared with the audience through performances, rehearsals, and elaborate music videos. The topics run the gamut from equal rights, to dating a girl who wants to have sex in a way that mirrors what the US government did to Osama Bin Laden. The material is fairly stupid more often than not, and the quality of the punchlines vary greatly from song to song, but it’s structured in such a way that the tracks sound like something you would expect to hear at Top 40 radio.
Samberg may be front and center in most promotional materials for Popstar, but all three members of The Lonely Island have individual arcs within the film itself. Lawrence’s search for a life outside of music is endlessly problematic, especially since he appears to possess next to no farming knowledge whatsoever. Owen, who is helplessly devoted to his friends, struggles to find the strength to tell Conner when he is in the wrong. All three stories eventually collide, and when the trio shares the screen Popstar is at its absolute best. Their real-life devotion to one another—which started when the now thirty-somethings were in college—helps sell the film even when the narrative is completely off the rails.
The cast behind the supporting characters populating Conner’s world are a veritable who’s who of entertainment, including Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, Seal, Chelsea Peretti, Sarah Silverman, Will Forte, Bill Hader, Imogen Poots, Mariah Carey, and more. There are also countless celebrities who appear as talking heads in documentary-style cutaways that each tell of how Conner’s work influenced their own creations. Nas, for example, claims that he may have never had a career at all if it weren’t for the Style Boyz’s initial rise to fame. Moments like this bring an added level of realness to a decidedly silly story, as well as a steady stream of surprise reveals that keep you guessing as to who you might see next.
To say anything more about Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping would be to risk ruining one of the funniest theatrical offerings of the year. The Lonely Island have taken everything fans love about their material and used it to create a hilarious alternate reality that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of celebrity and the ever-shallow world of entertainment in ways never brought to audiences before. If Popstar were a Netflix original series I would gladly have binged it for hours without complaint, but as is it’s a perfectly paced, insanely original film that will no doubt have viewers laughing for years to come.