Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Review: 'Popstar' skillfully spoofs the music industry

Graphically thinking outside the box, the Lonely Island comedy team makes a decent splash with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, an SNL spinoff that generally works.

The Lonely Island is Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, whose SNL digital shorts like D--- in a Box and I'm on a Boat went viral faster than bird flu. Popstar offers a proper format to string together such infectious raunch-pop riffs, swirling around a Spotify star (Samberg) on the schneid.

Those musical numbers are the funniest parts of Popstar, largely unprintable ditties mocking the sexual braggadocio of rap R&B, from homophobic "support" for gay rights to assassination pillow talk. The frequent concert settings do inhibit Lonely Island's visual instincts. All it takes is a crooning Michael Bolton strolling on stage in a tux to realize the joke is more amusing in pirate gear.

Samberg plays Conner4Real, who was born dope and just got dopier from there. Even his hologram is a tool. As directors, Schaffer and Taccone go the mockumentary route early to establish Conner's career with the Style Boyz, a street rap beast gushed over by everyone from Questlove to Carrie Underwood. The film grows more conventionally structured as it proceeds, not helping a climax featuring the movie's dullest song.

Conner goes solo, his first album a hit and his second ready to drop. As far as the other Style Boyz go, Owen (Taccone) spins an iPod for Conner's shows but Lawrence (Schaffer) is self-exiled on a farm, holding a grudge. When Conner's album and tour tank, he'll do anything to resist a Style Boyz reunion, even take on an upstaging opening act (Chris Redd) and stage a celebrity engagement.

Between the concerts and archive music videos, Popstar nimbly spoofs music industry practices and celebrity puffery in general. No blood, some foul. One example is Conner's deal to stream his LP through household appliances, like U2's derided 2014 intrusion on iPhones. Or a "perspective manipulator" hired to make Conner appear taller.

Those are smart ideas, set up and delivered with a precision taught by making three-minute videos packed with them. One comic moment lives, another is a dud and gone. But there isn't a single scene in Popstar bogged down with the improvisational filler of any Seth Rogen comedy out there. These Lonely Island guys don't coast.

As with other celebrity spoofs, Popstar leans heavily on cameos but atypical faces and situations: Ringo Starr, DJ Khaled, Arcade Fire, Pink on a unicorn, Justin Timberlake in celebrity chef drag, Seal mauled by wolves. Who else but Joan Cusack should be Conner's terrible mother, even briefly? Everything tries to count for something, seldom straining to do it. In this kind of comedy that makes a difference.

Popstar even returns the full frontal male nudity gag to a measure of artistic respect, in a scene destined to be imitated when I don't wish to be around. Watch how it operates on the comedy of three, in this case body parts, plus cagey editing and actors who somehow made it through the scene without cracking up. It's the stuff of film school essay; the anatomy of a d--- joke.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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