I’m not a fan of The Lonely Island. Never have been, don’t know if I ever will be. Every time their videos go viral, friends and family members keep telling me that I have to see this it’s so funny, but I just don’t get the joke.
That said, I did have high hopes for Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping. I was open to the notion that Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg had insights into the state of modern pop culture that might be better explored through a feature film than a YouTube music video. This could potentially have been a mockumentary to satirize modern pop music the way This is Spinal Tap turned ’80s metal on its ear, and there’s definitely room for something like that in the modern pop culture landscape.
Yet the comparison between the two movies helps highlight a couple of ways in which Pop Star doesn’t work. At least not where I’m concerned.
First of all, imagine that you’ve never heard of Spinal Tap before. Pretend that you don’t know a thing about the band or the movie they came from. Completely removed from all that context, one might actually think that “Stonehenge“, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight“, and maybe even “Big Bottom” were actual songs composed by legitimate musicians. The songs are all silly and exaggerated, sure, but not that much more than others in the genre and the time period. The music highlights the silliness that was already there, but not so much that the silliness becomes distracting and the joke becomes an end in itself. This very delicate balance helps make the soundtrack enjoyable in and of itself, and the satire becomes so much more biting precisely because the songs could so plausibly have been actual Billboard hits.
Compare that to “I’m So Humble“, “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“, and “Mona Lisa“. These are so obviously not the works of musicians. These are the works of comedians trying to pose as outrageous parodies of musicians. And therein lies my difference of opinion with fans of The Lonely Island.
Pop music and celebrity culture are already stupid and superficial to an outrageous degree. And The Lonely Island is all about trying to satirize pop music and celebrity culture by being even more outrageously stupid and superficial. The result is smug and self-defeating, with homogenous and boring production, and jokes that get run into the ground with each repetition of every chorus. It offers nothing new or insightful to any discussion of pop music, but we’re all supposed to laugh anyway, I guess just because the song exists at all.
And let’s be clear, I’m not against parody music as a rule. I’ve been listening to Weird Al (one of the film’s many cameo actors, by the way) and Tom Lehrer since I first knew what music was, and I love the stuff that Jonathan Coulton keeps putting out. But any one of those artists is way smarter than all three of the Lonely Island boys put together. They all came to be successful through lyrics that are actually funny and insightful (some admittedly more than others), and there’s no denying that they’re all skilled musicians in their own right.
And here’s another crucial difference: None of them ever once tried to pass himself off as a bona fide pop sensation. If any one of them tried to bill themselves as anything other than a comedian or novelty act, he’d be laughed off any stage.
Yet in this movie, we’re supposed to believe that the boys from Lonely Island (with writers Schaffer, Taccone, and Samberg respectively playing Lawrence, Owen, and Conner) were a mega-successful rap group called “The Style Boyz” that went on to inspire whole generations of musicians. And then after a falling-out, Conner went on to be an even more successful solo artist with Owen as his DJ. Sorry, but the music is all heightened and self-aware to such an outlandish degree that I’m just not buying it.
Which brings me to the other Spinal Tap comparison: The thirty-year difference between films. In the days before the internet, before social media, before reality TV, and when 24-hour news was still in its infancy, it was much easier to keep the members of Spinal Tap in their own little bubble. But for modern music acts, that’s not an option anymore. Now any decent performer has to have a daily vlog, a ton of hashtag catchphrases, millions of Twitter followers, and so on. To say nothing of the constant scrutiny from paparazzi, gossip journalists, and so on.
Pop culture and celebrity gossip “journalism” are light-years beyond any kind of control. Yet the film has absolutely nothing to say about any of this except that it’s out of control. So TMZ is full of mindless dickheads who get off on the pain of others with no regards for anyone’s privacy? Well, tell me something I don’t already know. And no, making them look like even more comically evil dickheads doesn’t count.
Then we have the celebrity cameos. There are so many celebrities who appear in this film as themselves to comment on Conner4Real and The Style Boyz. And we’re supposed to believe that such real-life icons as RZA, Mariah Carey, Ringo Starr, and Carrie Underwood were all inspired by the people who gave us “The Donkey Roll“.
No joke, a significant plot point centers around Usher and how the Donkey Roll was what made him want to become a dancer. Usher. Seriously. One of the most successful and charismatic pop stars on the scene today, easily one of the most talented dancers on any stage since Michael Jackson… and he’s geeking out over this doofy little novelty act. I’m sorry, I just don’t get the joke. I don’t get the point.
But easily the most head-scratching cameo comes courtesy of Simon Cowell, who shows up to say a few kind words about Conner and his album. To repeat: This is Simon freaking Cowell. The man who became a celebrity by telling egotistical little twerps that they weren’t nearly as talented as they might like to think. This is the guy who developed an international reputation as the judge who wasn’t afraid to dispense some harsh truths no matter whose feelings he hurt. Yet here he is, telling us that Conner’s album was a revolutionary piece of work.
Are we supposed to laugh just because Simon Cowell is on the screen? Are we supposed to think that the album really is a masterpiece because Cowell said so? Again, where’s the joke? Where’s the point?
That said, there are some cameos that do legitimately work. Conner getting the shit beaten out of him by Martin Sheen? Hilarious. Seal getting mauled by wolves? Very funny. Snoop Dog popping up out of nowhere as part of his own project? Yeah, I laughed at that.
But then we have the cameos from celebrities who don’t play themselves. Not all of them work — Kevin Nealon plays a dickish photographer in a gag that goes nowhere, and the TMZ stand-in stuff with Will Arnett and Mike Birbiglia is just awful.
Yet we also have Justin Timberlake — still one of the most bankable pop stars on the planet — showing up as Conner’s resident chef. It’s a scream. Maya Rudolph puts in a brief appearance as a corporate sponsor, and she’s a natural at coaxing laughs out of very little screen time. Bill Hader gets a memorable little cameo, but I kept waiting for the punchline that he maintains the guitars for a music act that doesn’t use guitars. I guess that got cut from the trailer, I dunno. Imogen Poots stops by long enough to play Conner’s girlfriend, and she gets a few laughs.
Moving on to the supporting cast, Sarah Silverman and Tim Meadows get a fair bit of screen time, respectively playing Conner’s publicist and his manager. Both of them turn in surprisingly good work. Silverman gets to deliver some solid jokes, and she really is a very underrated dramatic talent. As for Meadows, he and Samberg get a showstopping scene delivered entirely in audio after the cameras cut out. That one had me rolling in the aisles, I won’t deny it.
And what of our three main players? Well, Akiva Schaffer’s character left the public eye before the film started, so he doesn’t get much to do until the third act. Jorma Taccone is effectively just another yes-man who lets Conner get away with whatever he wants to do or think, but he does get a bit more screen time and plot relevance because he and Conner go back such a long ways.
This whole movie is all about Conner, a #1 superstar whose career slides deeper and deeper into shit. As such, the whole movie sits on Andy Samberg’s shoulders, with every joke and character beat hinging on his unyielding commitment to selling every moment. And as someone who failed to understand how Conner could ever get so massively popular in the first place, I got a huge kick out of watching his harebrained publicity stunts backfire over and over again to increasingly disastrous results. Though it’s kind of a drag waiting for Conner to predictably and inevitably get back together with his old Style Boyz comrades, the movie kicks into a much higher gear when it finally happens in the film’s closing minutes.
Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping is a film very clearly made by The Lonely Island for fans of The Lonely Island. If you like their brand of comedy… well, first of all, please leave a message in the comments section to let me know what I’m missing here. Because from where I’m sitting, it looks like Andy Samberg and company are just acting like self-aware parodies of pop stars who were already parodies of themselves to begin with. I could understand if that was being done to make a satirical point or bring a new perspective on the shallow and superficial nature of pop music, but it seems like The Lonely Island is merely content to say that pop music is shallow and superficial like that’s any kind of novel insight. Big deal.
But if you like The Lonely Island and you love all their viral music videos, then by all means go see this film and have a great time. Otherwise, for those who join me in the minority opinion, there might be enough laughs to justify a rental. That said, the film is only 86 minutes long and there’s nothing that really demands to be seen on the big screen, so I’m not sure I’d recommend buying a first-run ticket in any case.