Review: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” from The Lonely Island

You’re forgiven for believing that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the first movie from The Lonely Island.

Nobody really saw Hot Rod in the theater (it earned $14 million after spending $25 million). And that 2007 comedy — which starred Andy Samberg as an amateur daredevil, was written by Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, and was directed by Schaffer — only became a Lonely Island movie after original screenwriter Pam Brady couldn’t get it made for years with her intended star, Will Ferrell.

Schaffer since directed The Watch, which we didn’t.

Taccone received a Razzie nominaton for acting in the big-screen comedy adaptation of Land of the Lost, and followed that up by directing and co-writing MacGruber, which has a devoted cult following, if not a critical or financial success to fall back upon.

And while Samberg has remained a star on the small screen with Brooklyn Nine-Nine (winning a Golden Globe in the process), his big-screen resume lacks a hit. That’s My Boy? Nope.

So it’s auspicious. Or about damn time. Maybe both? Yes, definitely both.

They say write what you know. It helps immensely that Popstar falls directly into The Lonely Island’s wheelhouse — after all, the trio has three hit albums to their credit: “Incredibad” (2009), “Turtleneck & Chain” (2011) and “The Wack Album” (2013). Each of them topped the comedy charts, and their second album hit #3 on the Billboard 200; their most recent, peaked at #10. They have 34 music videos. They are pop stars themselves.

Popstar begins by following the boilerplate of several recent concert documentaries of contemporary pop stars (Katy Perry: Part of Me, One Direction: This Is Us, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Justin Bieber’s Believe, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience) and imagines one for a pop star much like Bieber, but only if he had begun his career in a boy band with his childhood best friends. We even see Connner4Real (Samberg) as a toddler in diapers banging proficiently on the drums.

It then diverges to follow Conner4Real’s life as it unravels in front of our eyes first, and then his. Style Boyz represents a parallel-universe multi-Earth version of The Lonely Island. Lawrence (Schaffer) disappears behind the scenes first, as a writer, and then off to a farm in Colorado. Owen (Taccone) becomes Conner’s DJ, a pretty face behind the face, until Conner decides to cover Owen’s with a glowing helmet.

And Conner4Real’s songs aren’t all that removed from anything you might hear on The Lonely Island records, or see in an SNL Digital Short. Heck, one of Popstar’s songs for Conner4Real premiered last month as an SNL Digital Short in the Season 41 finale. This is the uncensored SNL version of “Finest Girl (Bin Laden)” with Samberg in movie character.

A big opening musical number in Popstar shows Conner4Real at his peak, singing alongside a hologram of Adam Levine, “I’m So Humble.” His lack of actual humility ultimately trips him up — having 32 people on his payroll for various entourage “yes man” functions, or 100 producers for the 17 tracks on his follow-up album. It doesn’t matter how many real-life rappers or other music stars weigh in with hyperbolic testimonials, although the assembled crew of Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood, Ringo Starr, Simon Cowell, Questlove, DJ Khaled, Nas, 50 Cent, A$AP Rocky, RZA, T.I., Pharrell, Akon, T.I., Danger Mouse, and the Style Boyz biggest fan, Usher, lends some legitimacy to both the Style Boyz white rap as well as their real-life alter egos, The Lonely Island. It doesn’t matter that Pink sings on a track with Conner4Real.

It doesn’t matter that Conner keeps remarking “I’m not gay” in a song about marriage equality.

At a certain point in a pop star’s career arc, the star cannot get too big for his or britches.

But Conner doesn’t heed the warning signs. After signing a deal to put his music into appliances, he tells Owen: “I know it sounds lame, but there’s no such thing as selling out anymore.” His publicist, Paula (Sarah Silverman) seems resigned to it all, saying of her star client: “It may not be what I listen to, but it seems to make a lot of people a lot of money.” And his manager, Harry (Tim Meadows), quickly signs a brasher younger rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) to help sell concert tickets as Conner’s opening act.

This, as Conner’s second album, “Connquest,” flops. Pitchfork gives him a grade of -4, while Rolling Stone simply describes it this way: 💩. The only “positive” review comes courtesy of sarcasm in The Onion.

Conner at first tries to shake it off, telling his crew in a pre-concert pep talk backstage, “A lot of people hating right now. But we feed off their hate.”

He has a star girlfriend in Ashley Wednesday (Imogen Poots) who says she always “dreamed about being one of those couples” that tabloids made you wonder if they were really in love or just a charade.

Eventually, the facade comes crashing down on Conner, and he’s faced with the choice between oblivion or an arc of redemption. This is a comedy, so which path do you think he picked?

Fun nuggets include Samberg’s “Dick In a Box” and “Mother Lover” collaborator Justin Timberlake working up a nervous sweat as Conner’s executive chef, Bill Hader as Zippy, the guitar tech who’s into flatlining, and you could enjoy the recurring segments spoofing TMZ outside of the movie entirely. The CMZ crew, led by Will Arnett and backed by Eric Andre, Mike Birbiglia, and Chelsea Peretti (an actual childhood friend of Samberg’s, in addition to co-star on Brooklyn Nine-Nine), is ridiculously spot-on.

The movie climaxes at the Pop Awards (“The Poppies”) where Conner collaborates with old friends of his, plus a previous co-conspirator with The Lonely Island, on a song called “Incredible Thoughts.”

Here’s another incredible thought: Perhaps The Lonely Island finally has the hit movie the three fellas been seeking.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens today everywhere.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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