“Ever since I was born, I was dope.”
This is our introduction to Andy Samberg’s Conner4Real, and it offers just the sort of genial hubris that marks Conner’s blessed life. He was whaling on the drums as a toddler; he met his two best friends (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone as Lawrence and Owen) young in life, and together these three kids founded the instantly successful rap trio The Style Boyz. After an ego fall-out with Lawrence, Conner’s spun off into his solo act, and his first album sold millions.
But in the grand tradition of easy success stories, Conner has now surrounded himself with yes men and parasites. He tried something new with his second album, refusing to use any of Owen’s beats and writing all of the dipshit lyrics himself, and the results are dismal. The album fails, starting a chain reaction of failures, everything from Conner's relationships to his stage illusions. Conner’s had a prideful life, and now he’s about to suffer a big fall.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a Lonely Island movie through and through. Schaffer and Taccone directed the film, from a script by all three members, and it feels like an ideal culmination of everything that makes a Lonely Island sketch work. Rarely does a Saturday Night Live concept translate so effectively into a feature film, but Popstar accomplishes that transformation with a good nature, coherent script and nimble, non-stop jokes. Just joke after joke after joke, at a success rate much higher than even the best episodes of SNL. There’s plenty of stupidity here, but just the right amount, and none of it goes on too long. Before you’ve wrapped your head around one silly gag, Popstar has donkey rolled its way onto the next one.
Is the fate of The Style Boyz that of Lonely Island? It’s easy to make a comparison between the two trios. Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer became friends in junior high and rose to fame with seeming ease before being hired by Lorne Michaels to SNL, where Samberg became the breakout star, the featured player with by far the most surface success. Whether ego or envy were ever a part of Lonely Island’s story, they make The Style Boyz’s fictional history feel likely and authentic. It’s a small story, and it’s a dumb story, but it’s also a resonant one, and an efficient one. At under ninety minutes, Popstar hits every required narrative beat, giving us change, desire, conflict, resolution and triumph in clear, tidy doses.
And not for nothing, this movie looks like a movie. Cinematographer Brandon Trost has gotten a lot of well-earned attention lately for the way he shoots comedies, and Popstar is a perfect example. It’s bright and kinetic, just fun to look at. Conner’s tour performances and music videos are a blast, and since this is a Lonely Island joint, it should surprise nobody that the songs are, to a one, genius. With guest performances by Adam Levine, P!nk, Emma Stone, Seal, Akon and more, you’ll have no problem both cracking up and singing along to these jams. The titles include “I’m So Humble,” “Karate Guy,” “Things in My Jeep” and “Equal Rights,” in which Conner trips over himself to assure fans that he’s “not gay!” in a song about legalizing gay marriage…released months after gay marriage was made legal.
In addition to all of the musical guests, Popstar succeeds where so many other farces fail: a wealth of cameos that don’t feel shoehorned in or superfluous. After all, Popstar is a mockumentary about the rise and fall of a musician, so celebrity talking heads like Questlove, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Usher, Mariah Carey, Simon Cowell and Ringo Freaking Starr all have a place in this format.
The more substantial performances are even more successful: Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman both stand out as Conner’s beleaguered management team, Justin Timberlake is his gentle, wide-eyed chef, and Joan Cusack absolutely kills as Conner’s flighty mother, a loving matriarch who is nevertheless enjoying the party scene a little too much.
Popstar does a terrific job of satirizing stardom, and the pop music industry as a whole, and you can’t skewer the dumb world of celebrity without skewering the dumbest part of it all. That brings us to Will Arnett, Chelsea Peretti, Mike Birbiglia and Eric André, having the most fun of anyone here by mocking the gleefully unhinged staff of a TMZ stand-in called CMZ. These guys are idiots. Evil idiots.
In other words, everyone’s great here. But this is the story of The Style Boyz, and Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer share a lovely chemistry, the kind of chemistry born from real history, the kind that can’t be faked. Despite a brief but delightful love interest role by Imogen Poots, Popstar has no real romance to speak of – except the romance among Conner, Owen and Lawrence. They may have let success get in the way of their friendship, but the most moving testimonials from admiring celebrity fans are all about the magic that happened when The Style Boyz were making music together. It’s easy to roll our eyes at Conner4Real, but the friendship at the core of his film is the realest thing about it.