Needs More Cowbell: On The Lonely Island’s “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”

Can a digital short inflate to feature length without popping?

First, a bit of context: I’m confident that I could watch eighty-six minutes of Lonely Island digital shorts and feel pretty good about myself afterward. When those songs are good, they seem both unpredictable (“Mr. Pibb and Red Vines = …”) and predestined (“… crazy delicious,” yes of course!). They are, in other words, good jokes.

But they’re pretty good songs, too. That’s what’s most impressive about The Lonely Island: their collective ability to credibly recreate the style of the early Beastie Boys, or hyper-explicit R&B, or peak Rihanna and take the air out of those styles while remaining buoyant in their new creations. Michael Bolton as a Pirates of the Caribbean fanboy is a funny concept, but that joke becomes transcendent when we can’t help but be swept along by the power of the chorus. (Yes: Captain Jack Sparrow truly is the jester of Tortuga.)

The idea that this should be a movie is not at all a crazy idea. People have made movies about the irate fowl in a video game, the four fantastic people that refuse to make executives any money, ever, and the Mortdecai. And the Lonely Island bros have more going for them than a lot of other SNL films had (Pat’s having played with Ween notwithstanding). They’ve now created dozens of songs rather than just one joke, and they’ve also managed to retain a kind of authorial voice throughout all of these iterations. The same dudes who chomped on Magnolia donuts and craved the Narnia franchise were also clearly rhyming “saunas” with “piranhas” in last year’s “YOLO.”

So there’s a great track record here, a great set of writers and performers, and an interesting backstory (one that is replicated almost without comment in the course of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, getting now to the point). But that leaves a lot of other things that skit-inspired movies tend to struggle with: things like plot and stakes and character.

Popstar doesn’t grapple with these problems so much as it donkey rolls right past them. This is a narrative film in the same way that “Lazy Sunday” is a narrative music video: both tell a story, but neither story matters. (Suffice it to say that Popstar is a movie about a pop star who rises, falls, and rises again via an audience-friendly rebranding). Similarly with the characters: they are in the service of the jokes, primarily. And that’s fine! They’re funny! But they are also… wait, who are they again? Andy Samberg’s Conner Friel is introduced as a Justin Bieber parody, but he then accrues Justin Timberlake’s backstory, Macklemore’s tone-deafness, and a variety of other loose shout-outs that appear to make him recognizably of the moment while remaining diffuse to a very neutered degree. (There is not a lot of humor in a biting satire of the everyman, even when said everyman is a celebrity everyman.)

There is not a lot of humor in a biting satire of the everyman, even when said everyman is a celebrity everyman.

There is, however, a lot of humor in this movie. It just so happens that the humor is incidental rather than essential. I laughed hard (at the idea of Bill Hader’s “flatlining” hobby in particular), and I laughed often (all the performances are great, and even the failed jokes are interesting; see for instance the weirdly un-cut segment concerning off-screen bees), but I never cared enough about the people involved to treat this as anything other than an extended Digital Short or Lonely Island video—and by those measures the film falls woefully short. The songs aren’t up to snuff as songs or as parody.

But speaking of falling woefully short, one of the great geniuses of mediocrity died this week. His name was Peter Shaffer, and he gave us Amadeus, and the line “too many notes.” If I may summarize that complicated declaration, it is spoken by a royally entitled ass about a sublimely gifted genius, and it’s reported to us via a thoroughly embittered artist now obsessed with his own paltriness. The line is intended to show the ignorance of its speaker, but its simplicity makes it profound. I think about it often. I’m not calling Andy Samberg a Mozart, of course, but there is a kind of mad and dirty genius to The Lonely Island’s songs. When those songs are great—as they not infrequently are—they do not give the proverbial fuck about originality or parody or the line between the two; instead, they are just on the proverbial boat, having the fucking time of their proverbial lives. But a good time is hard to find when the soundtrack is lacking. And for a movie from the guys who brought us “Lazy Sunday,” in a movie ostensibly about the very same Bieber who brought us this and this but also this, I dunno, it seems like too many notes. Too many notes, and too few hooks.

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