Every aspect of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feels calculated and constructed for success. The structure of the film is largely borrowed from Rob Reiner/Christopher Guest’s classic mock-rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, with a bit of VH1’s “Behind the Band” to update the format for younger audiences. It also updates the subject, switching from the fading hair bands in the 1980s to an indictment of pop/hip-hop stars of today, primarily focusing on a character very obviously based on Justin Bieber. While the jokes are consistently funny for at least two-thirds of the film and the music parodies created by The Lonely Island are at least as successful as the work they have done for “Saturday Night Live” over the years, something about Popstar feels a bit too safe. Even a scene of graphic male nudity (thanks to a contribution from producer Judd Apatow, who takes his efforts to use male genitals in a majority of his film one step further by offering his own for this gag) can’t save this film from being less shocking than reality itself. Anyone who has read about the spoiled-brat behavior of Bieber over the years or follows the narcissistic ramblings of Kanye West’s twitter feed will realize that real life is far more absurd than anything offered in Popstar.
The biggest problem is a basic plot structure which relies on audience sympathy for the main protagonist. Though Bieber and West may have carefully calculated PR stunts to try and win over the public whenever they have a CD to sell, anyone who keeps watching long enough can see how insincere these changes actually are, whereas Popstar engrains the path for redemption in its protagonist from the opening sequences. Connor4Real (Andy Samberg) isn’t really a bad guy; he just got caught up in the glamour of fame and will inevitably learn the error in his way in the contrived third act that any experienced filmgoer will see coming within the first five minutes of the film.
In the backstory provided by the fake documentary format of the film, we learn that Connor4Real started out his career in a group called Style Boys (made up of the other two members of The Lonely Island, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, who also direct the film). When Connor emerged as the biggest star, he splits off to make solo albums as Connor4Real, in obvious reference to musical celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, whose hilarious cameo in the film solidifies this comparison. As talented as Connor is, the film pounds the idea that he was better when collaborating with his childhood friends into each step of the narrative. This is mostly done by showing how ridiculous his music has become since branching off, providing the most opportunities for The Lonely Island to do what they do best. There is no doubt where the narrative is heading, so the forced emotional resolution between these three ends up feeling more perfunctory than earned.
I could spend even more time griping about the contrivances of the screenplay co-written by the three actors in the fake movie band, and I stand by the fact that Justin Bieber is a far more ridiculous human being than anything represented in the film. But the reality is that despite its shortcomings, much of Popstar made me laugh. Even when the film seems to cinematically sell out in a way that is contradictory to the message about the music industry, it does so briskly and in a way that begs the audience not to think too hard about it. It is a flaw in my viewing tendencies that I am unable to ignore these discrepancies, though I imagine most average filmgoers will be happy to take the irreverent humor at face value. This is not a film that wants to condemn the music industry as much as cash in on the ridiculous but successful direction it has gone in recently. While this may make the filmmakers somewhat hypocritical, one must remember that these are the same guys that came up with “Dick in a Box.” Somehow I doubt that they will lose much sleep over the fact that their criticism of the industry is not quite as scathing as it could have been. Most will simply be impressed that they convinced Mariah Carey to make fun of herself, among countless other unexpected cameos.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 6/10