Glen Wilson / Universal Pictures
A quick survey of the pop music landscape: Kanye West, in the midst of rolling out an album that frequently changed titles and engaging in a Twitter feud with a rapper named Wiz, claimed he was $53 million in debt but could still “buy furs and houses for my family.” A scandal known as “DoughnutGate” ensnarled Ariana Grande; her apology began “I am EXTREMELY proud to be an American.” Fans of Justin Bieber continue to go by the name “Beliebers.”
In such a state, where reality seems to be engaged in an arms race of absurdity, the bar for parody is higher than a Mariah Carey vocal exercise.
“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” the Lonely Island’s mockumentary styled after self-aggrandizing docs like Bieber’s “Never Say Never,” doesn’t often reach the kind of pitch that will shatter glass. It comes closest when its “Behind the Music” format dissolves and, before you know it, there’s (the film’s producer) Judd Apatow’s penis (definitely not in a box) smeared against a limousine window or Will Arnett’s recurring, cackling, beverage-wielding impression of TMZ’s Harvey Levin.
Yet on display in “Popstar” — which actually boasts only a handful of Bieber jabs — is the full panoply of pop music’s glorious, ego-warped idiocy, from the demented bubble of an entourage to pseudo poses of humility by the famous. It’s done with the familiar skewering wit (and respectable knack for a tune) of Lonely Island trio Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the makers of the beloved “Saturday Night Live” Digital Shorts.
In “Popstar,” which the trio wrote and Schaffer and Taccone directed, they play a boy-band kind of Beastie Boys, the Style Boyz, whose ’90s success launches the solo career of Conner Friel (Samberg), AKA Conner4Real. He has jettisoned lyricist Lawrence (Schaffer), who now disgruntledly lives on a Colorado farm, and relegated beats specialist Owen (Taccone) to the DJ booth. In a particularly cruel move, he outfits Owen in a Daft Punk-like helmet.
After the success of his solo debut, “Thriller, Also,” Conner’s head has swelled to Kanye-sized proportions. His stage show features Adam Levine holograms (“So expensive!” he brags), his tour expenditures include a “scarf caddy” and two “umbrella wranglers” and his follow-up album has been made with 100 producers.
His manager (Tim Meadows) and publicist (Sarah Silverman) attempt to shield him from the disaster of his second album, which scores a -4.0 from Pitchfork. Silverman’s publicist nevertheless wants Connor to be everywhere “like oxygen or clinical depression.”
You can imagine where this goes: Conner’s empire collapses and he’s left to rebuild the bond between him and his old, jilted friends. (The Lonely Island trio have in real life have stayed loyal since first meeting in junior high.)
“Popstar” is a worthy heir to “This is Spinal Tap.” Some of its mockumentary gags are laced with a distinctly Christopher Guest-ian irony: Conner announcing a surprise album release a week in advance; the confused collision of three documentary camera crews when their stars meet; Bill Hader as a roadie who gets off by “flatlining,” or stopping his heart.
The easy knock on movies from comedy troupes is that they would have been better as just a sketch. But at worst, this is a few dozen Digital Shorts strung together, complete with the same number of cameos. (Questlove, Nas, Pink and others make appearances, though Ringo Starr upstages them all.)
Lost in the parade, possibly, is any central character to build comedy around besides Conner. But there’s room for the kind of surreal spirals Samberg and company specialize in. Their first film together, “Hot Rod,” had hints of it, but they didn’t originate that script and it showed. Here, it comes through in willfully ridiculous sideways veers, like one scene that miraculously combines wolves and Seal, the R&B singer, or later, when a crestfallen Conner takes an interest in dressage.
For Lonely Island, the world of pop music, in all its majestic farce, is a playground of wonders, from Wu-Tang Clan to Michael Bolton. “Popstar” is like shooting Macklemores in a barrel.