Friday, June 10, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, 2016)

Pop sensation Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is preparing to release his second solo album and has a documentary crew around to capture every moment in POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING. Conner’s ascent started as a member of the Style Boyz with childhood friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), but the rap trio breaks up when Lawrence gets angry about not receiving writing credit for Conner’s guest verse on an award-winning hit. Lawrence drops out of the music industry and becomes a farmer. Meanwhile Conner enjoys even greater success as a solo performer. Owen helps make beats for Conner’s tracks and DJs during his concerts, but for the next album and tour cycle Conner has reduced his contribution to pushing play on an iPod.

Questionable singles, bad reviews, and a backfiring release strategy that automatically pushes Conner’s new material to home appliances begin to erode his popularity. Album sales are suffering and his concerts aren’t selling out, so at the suggestion of his manager Harry (Tim Meadows), he agrees to take on underground hip-hop star Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) as an opening act. Ticket sales get a boost, but a string of embarrassing incidents threaten to damage his career even more.

POPSTAR puts a poptimist twist on THIS IS SPINAL TAP. It takes the music and the industry seriously while goofing hard on both. As outlandish as much of the lyrics and behavior can be, the main joke is that a lot of it isn’t far removed from real songs or public artist missteps. The absurdity is certainly turned up, but the humor reflects what life looks like inside and outside the pop bubble. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone employ a lot of referential jokes but have the good sense not to make the funniness contingent on being able to spot what they’re satirizing. It’s an added bonus if you recognize the film’s analogues to Tyler, The Creator and a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit, among many other zingers, but the jokes still land for those who don’t read Pitchfork or Stereogum every day. Considering the broad nature of the jokes, the film tends to relatively subtle, such as how Conner adapts his real last name for showbiz.

As members of The Lonely Island, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone are pop stars in their own right, and their ties with popular artists surely helped in getting many of them to cameo in POPSTAR. Whether appearing as themselves or playing parts, like Justin Timberlake as Conner’s approval-seeking personal chef, the presence of so many celebrities may take some of the teeth out of the comedy. POPSTAR pokes fun at the music business, but it adopts more of an insider’s perspective. That quality doesn’t make the film less funny, but it does seem like the humor is somewhat soft-pedaled. One of the most savage and funniest bits is reserved for the vultures at a TMZ-like television show, which is indicative of where the film’s sympathies are.

Still, implicit criticism is found in POPSTAR and is identified through the form it takes and the recent slew of pop star documentaries it riffs on. The title calls back to JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER. The style suggests that, at face value, the film is an unvarnished look at an artist, as if Conner or any other pop act, like One Direction, are just humble folks with ordinary origins even as such statements celebrate their excess and inspire envy. POPSTAR slyly draws attention to the fact that social media postings and theatrically-released documentaries for fans as ostensible promotional campaigns are just the current way of managing perception to keep revenue flowing. There’s a reason why artists authorize something unflattering being distributed widely. The joke may seem like it’s on the pop stars, but if we believe it, isn’t it on us?

Grade: B

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