By Michael S. Goldberger
“Oh fame, thy time is fleeting.”
Either someone once said that or I just made it up. All the same, it adequately nails down the gist of “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” a satiric mockumentary that hilariously challenges the authenticity of contemporary rock-‘n’-roll stardom. Written by and starring the troika of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, it is a copycatting but valid update of the thesis “This is Spinal Tap” (1984) proffered about musical success. That the three are childhood friends playing childhood friends doesn’t hurt the effort.
Through a quick recitation of the backstory, we learn that after achieving overnight success as The Style Boyz, inevitable squabbling among the three led to dissolution with Andy Samberg’s Conner, the lead singer, rising from the ashes to become solo star Conner 4 Real. He has retained Owen, played by Mr. Taccone, as his DJ and tacit sycophant, while Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), stating a classic case of bitter and irreconcilable differences, has exiled himself on a farm in Colorado.
But it’s upward and onward for self-absorbed Conner, who has not only come to believe his clippings, but fashioned a bizarre interpretation of just what he believes a popstar is. He makes an art of the monstrously effete stereotype, certain that decadence and talent are not only interchangeable, but an anti-intellectual, audience-insulting arrogance required of him. He’s pretty good at it, too…this obnoxious success stuff, and truth be told he hasn’t known anything but since his nascent days with Lawrence and Owen.
Thus it comes as an unthinkable shock when the world that was once his oyster suddenly becomes devoid of the pearls it so generously spewed. Horror of horrors, the new solo album isn’t selling. Just like that, the financial rewards of success that are too often mistaken for esteem have evaporated. In ancient times, the hero thus rendered would offer some penitence or sacrifice to the gods, which would return him to grace. But modern times call for modern methods.
Thus it only follows that Conner and his manager, Harry, a fallen idol in his own right nicely played by Tim Meadows, will pay homage to the divinity of money by spending unconscionable amounts of it on a world tour. Surely the prodigiously launched dollars will sow the seeds of appreciation in those fans who haven’t gotten the memo. The ensuing publicity campaign, a lampoon unto itself, is wonderfully absurd…a primer on fame-building that would doubtless win Warhol’s seal of approval, as well as a hearty thumbs up from P.T. Barnum himself.
Although a paraphrase of what he actually said, H.L. Mencken is attributed with asserting that, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It fits here. Conner and his handlers are determined to force their brand on John Q fan. What’s scarier in this election year fraught with more vaunt and falsehood than recent memory serves, is that part of that original truism is his less quoted, “Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” To credit him with saying, “Beware of billionaires bearing lies” would be assuming far too much foresight.
Luckily, unlike what the news daily bodes to our unbelieving eyes and ears, this is make believe. The fantasy dictatorships and fiefdoms of idolatry that rock stars establish among their minions rarely ruin lives, let alone whole civilizations. Still, as Conner tussles and wrangles with the fragile properties of celebrity, it’s heartening to note that sometimes you indeed can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Plainly, he’s not a hit by himself. So, while it’s subconscious at first, like almost every famous person, he fears that he will be found out…that he is, alas, a phony.
It all jaunts along so entertainingly, the narrative complemented by original songs ingeniously written by the three principals. The tunes, combining into an operatic parody that chants of the culture at hand, are quite funny. But here’s the inherent hitch. Because the very creative screenplay is so irreverently written, it feels a bit compromising when the story ultimately takes a rather traditional trajectory. Of course we couldn’t have it any other way. For all his self-deluded insanity, our fictitious bamboozler is at heart an innocent everyman.
Messrs. Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone encapsulate the life and times of their characters with a love-hate that playfully turns fame on its ear and questions that phenomenon’s role in society. From theology to the dynamics of the playground, whether we pick them or they foist themselves upon us, we have heroes. Some truly offer hope and inspiration, while the false prophets capitalize on our dreams for their own aggrandizement. And then there are the idols of “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” who just want to be loved…and make a bunch of money.
“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone and stars Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Running time: 87 minutes