“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”
There’s funny as in “Oh, yes, that’s funny,” and there’s funny like “Ha!” (loud but one syllable), and then there’s the kind of funny found in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” which makes everybody in the audience look alike — mouth open, jaw-dropped, astonished. That’s the kind of funny we’re all looking for.
Written by and starring the comedy trio, “The Lonely Island” — Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — the movie is a parody of the contemporary pop music scene, about a white hip-hop ensemble that breaks up when the frontman (Samberg) goes solo. “Popstar” has more going for it than outrageousness, though it certainly has that. It has genuine outrage, a good-humored but clear-eyed take on today’s pop culture as a morass of corruption, idiocy and relentless self-promotion.
The songs are absolutely hysterical. As in the great tradition of The Rutles and the movies “Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind,” they’re good enough to stand on their own as examples of their genre, until you listen to the lyrics. And the beauty of the lyrics here is that they’re as complex and laden with internal rhymes as the best hip-hop lyrics … except they’re insane. People may want to see this movie more than once just to hear the lyrics they were laughing through.
Most of them can’t be quoted at all, at least not the funny parts, and explaining them in general terms feels a little like Mr. Spock describing an orgy. Or like standing on the beach wearing a tuxedo. Still, the comic conceits are funny enough that you might get a sense of the mentalities at work. For example, the pop star (Samberg) has a pro-gay marriage song in which he happens to mention at least a hundred times that he, himself, isn’t gay. Another song uses the killing of Bin Laden as a metaphor for really good sex. Of course, describing the joke in such a dry way doesn’t make it sound like much, but it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while.
One of the pitfalls of movie satire is that the satirists are often in love with the thing they’re mocking. That’s not a problem here. Underlying “Popstar” is rather a kind of bemused disgust. The pop star lives on social media and, at one point, does a selfie Periscope where he mentions that he’s just masturbated. And the satire of TMZ presents the crew there as a gang of grotesques.
Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer also seem to understand completely the mechanisms of modern media. In essence, the story of the film is about what happens when things start to go bad. As “Popstar” begins, the star is a god, a glamour figure selling out huge venues. And then one thing goes bad, and then another, and the movie becomes an escalating series of embarrassing, career-annihilating disasters.
Beyond satire, the filmmakers (Taccone and Schaffer directed) have a zany, out-of-left-field imaginative quality that allows them to be silly and surprise audiences. For example, there’s a great bit involving wolves. (Enough said.) Yes, the movie has a message — that the contemporary music scene is a money-fueled wasteland, in which selling out is considered a virtue and the most colossal and hideous narcissism is canonized as healthy self-assertion. But “Popstar” is no polemic, and the joy of it is in wildness and comic freedom.
There are many celebrity cameos, most appearing as talking heads (Ringo Starr, Bill Hader), but Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer’s performances — with Samberg as the blustering oaf, Taccone as the sweet, loyal friend and Schaffer as a brooding brains of the group — carry the picture. Their timing, perfected over the course of years, is priceless.