A couple weeks ago was the finale for the forty-first season of Saturday Night Live. At one point, fairly late in the show, a familiar title screen came up: “An SNL Digital Short” For people who loved everything from “Lazy Sunday” to “Spring Break Anthem,” it was pretty exciting. What began was “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” arguably one of the best songs that The Lonely Island has put together. I was so excited by the song that I proceeded to watch the video on Youtube a dozen times in a row and then, once it hit Spotify, just let it run on repeat. It was fantastic.
So let’s be clear: I went into Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping a major fan of the team behind it. It had the potential to be a double-edged sword, though: If it was good, I’d love it. But if it was disappointing? Well, I would be crushed and probably hate it as a result.
I needn’t have worried.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Directors: Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
Release Date: June 3, 2016
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a mockumentary, and a great one at that. Following, primarily, the story of Conner 4 Real, a member of the Style Boyz, who broke off on his own after a fight with whoever Akiva Schaffer played. (Not gonna lie, I don’t remember his character’s name or Jorma Taccone’s; then again, I probably wouldn’t remember Conner’s if it hadn’t been seared into my retina from the repeated viewings of “Finest Girl.”) Anyways, he’s got a documentary being made about his life to coincide with the release of his second album. People went crazy for the first one, and now he’s trying to top it, by hiring a metric fuckton of producers and making something that just… doesn’t work. (Except to me, obviously. I thought it was all gold, but I understand why the fictional humans in this mockumentary might not take to it.)
This is the first mockumentary I’ve seen in a while, or at least the first one I remember seeing. It was big for a while and then kinda fell by the wayside. I get that. The joke can get stale pretty quickly, which makes Popstar’s brisk, 90-ish minute runtime perfect. There’s enough variety to keep you entertained but not so much stuff that it ever feels padded or overlong. The only jokes that go on are the ones where that is, in fact, the joke, and the film only goes to that well a couple times (i.e. not enough to be irritating or gratuitous).
One of the potential issues with the format is that there are only so many places it can go. And, sure enough, from the moment Popstar begins, you can (successfully) guess every single story beat. Nothing about the narrative is even sort of surprising… but so what? For a film from The Lonely Island, that’s pretty much exactly what I wanted. I wanted something that felt good and comfortable and also made me laugh while putting some new music into my head to obsess over for a little while. And the film absolutely succeeded on both those counts. The “Finest Girl” song actually plays a big early role in the film, and it was kinda cool for me to see how much different and also the same the “In Concert” version of the song was compared to the music video. And I loved his song about Equal Rights (I’m so excited for when that hits Spotify), being Humble (which is already there), the Mona Lisa (ditto), and everything else. Seriously, the music here is just stellar from start to finish. If this was actually just a concert film, I would still have loved it. [When this was written, the album hadn’t hit Spotify yet. It’s now up, but the Equal Rights song is not available. Which is hot garbage. – Ed]
But there’s more to it. It’s a damning indictment of our modern pop culture and the way we treat our stars. (Sort of.) Conner gets big, in part, because he connects directly with fans. He records himself brushing his teeth and posts it. Everything is out there for the world to see. As someone who watches at least a couple of Youtubers consistently, it really struck a chord not just because it was funny but because it was real. Everything about the way his persona goes from public idol to public ridicule feels genuine, even if it’s turned up to 11. So many moments are exaggerated versions of real headlines. (The music-in-your-appliances dig at Apple and U2? Spot on.) It’s a parody of modern music, but it’s also a celebration of the same. You can tell that everyone involved is genuinely enjoying what they’re doing.
This extends to an expectedly large cast of cameos, who really help sell the whole thing. The likes of Usher, Nas, and A$AP Rocky all help to ground the film in a bizarre alternate reality, and every one of them puts in a killer performance. I don’t really want to ruin all the cameos, and we’re not talking Muppets-level stuff here, but it’s a pretty packed group, many (if not most) of whom are playing themselves. Usher is particularly compelling, and when says that it was the Style Boyz who made him want to start dancing, for just a moment, I totally believed him. Because, like, duh. The Donkey Roll is an awesome dance. How could it not inspire Usher to become Usher?
It’s been a good Spring for comedies. Between The Boss (which I liked, despite knowing that no one else does), Neighbors 2 (which Nick didn’t like but is awesome), and The Nice Guys (which isn’t as good as Neighbors 2 and has some issues with the way it handles the “hilarity” of death but is the most genuinely original comedy I’ve seen in a while), there’s been a lot to recommend. And though I recommend all those films, to varying degrees, Popstar stands above. This is The Lonely Island at the top of their, years after leaving SNL and mostly dropping off the map. They’re back and as good as (if not better than) ever. If you don’t like The Lonely Island, this film won’t convince you to. But if you do, you’re going to love each and every moment.