The first Key & Peele movie, “Keanu,” came and went with great promise and half-realized expectations. It wasn’t reasonable to assume the first cinematic output from the “visionary minds” who gave us Obama’s Anger Translator and Lil’ Homey could fully shape their genius into a 90-minute movie. If anything, while there were big laughs in “Keanu,” the comedy was overly conventional, as cleverly outrageous ideas were dragged down by a pedestrian “gangsta drama.” On the other hand, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” the first movie from The Lonely Island comedy trio, delivers the goods and never stops never stopping the big laughs and goofy jokes.
Andy Samberg plays Conner 4 Real, a quasi-talented singer/hip hop artist whose fan interaction and ubiquitous presence in the media is the real source of his popularity. His band mates (played by Samberg’s Lonely Island collaborators and the film’s directors, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) are fed up with Conner’s diva lifestyle. Others in Conner’s posse seem aware but unwilling to admit that Conner 4 Real is both hugely popular and really, really stupid.
The Lonely Island has always come across like an inspired cross between The Beastie Boys and “Weird’ Al Yankovic (yes, I mean that as high praise). While the “mockumentary” approach of “Popstar” will make many recall “This is Spinal Tap,” the real inspiration and a better comparison is Rusty Cundieff’s brilliant, little-seen and killingly funny “Fear of a Black Hat.” Cundieff’s movie, which parodies much of the early 90’s hip hop scene, has a great deal in common with “Popstar”: both are consistently funny but totally of their time. Some of the best gags in “Popstar” are digs at Justin Bieber, TMZ, U2’s “Songs of Innocence” album, and Daft Punk, to name a few. It’s hard to imagine these jokes still feeling fresh in ten years. Like the hilarious but now dated bits in “Fear of a Black Hat” that tease PM Dawn, C + C Music Factory and Black Box, “Popstar” has too many you-had-to-be-there digs that work well right now but won’t carry over to the next generation.
By the third act, with its obvious, get-the-band-back-together plot line, it gets too predictable and approaches formula. Despite some bits that are either too brief or not fully fleshed out, the big laughs are well earned. It must be said that most showbiz parodies tend to celebrate the individual or group they claim to mock. “Popstar” isn’t “The Player” of music or especially cutting but it does display genuine contempt for the cult of celebrity.
Yes, the cult favorite “Hot Rod” came before “Popstar.” Let me be fair and remind readers that, when he made “Hot Rod,” Samberg was an “SNL” newcomer, unknown and his group in the beginning of establishing their brand. Whereas “Hot Rod” may have provided a preview of what a “Lonely Island” movie could be, “Popstar” is the big budget, no-holds-barred realization of that potential. It’s arguable that The Lonely Island are as influential and piercingly satiric as Key & Peele. However, devoted online fans and repeat appearances on “SNL” have kept them in the public eye as much as, if not more so, than “Key & Peele.” Comedy aficionados may not recall the last great “Key & Peele” Substitute Teacher sketch but is there anyone alive who hasn’t seen “D*** in a Box” or “Lazy Sunday”?
The platform for The Lonely Island to break out cinematically has been established and, while critics have mostly been accommodating, audiences ignored it in theaters. Like “Hot Rod,” “Popstar” is on its way to rediscovery and a healthy following on home video release. The two make a great double feature. For Real.