Let’s be real. Every music biopic is a remix of just three beats: Rise-Success-Crash, Crash-Rise-Success, or Success-Crash-Rise. We know the rhythm. What makes us dance is the melody. How is this artist interesting despite the same old script?
Here’s how the hilarious Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping does it: Every 20 seconds, writers The Lonely Island — a.k.a. comedians Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer — drop a joke. Sometimes it’s dumb. Often it’s brilliantly dumb. But the snort-laughs are as regular as a metronome, and a third of them are jabs at Justin Bieber, whose own biopic Never Say Never inspired the title and most of its scorn for child prodigy Conner4Real (Andy Samberg), a tattooed, egotistical brat who surrounds himself with yes men, cooler rappers, and millions of fans willing to watch Snapchat videos of his ass-waxing.
Remember that time Bieber disgraced the Anne Frank house? That’s here, too, but worse. Boasts Conner’s publicist (Sarah Silverman), he’s as omnipresent as “clinical depression.” And just as awful to suffer. Conner is so spoiled that he travels with an eyebrow specialist, a turtle sitter, a scarf caddy, and a guy hired to “punch him in the nuts to remind him where he came from.” Clearly, that last dude is falling down on the job, because as Popstar begins, Conner has split from his childhood best friends and Style Boyz bandmates Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) to go solo — or solo-ish. Owen is still allowed to DJ, but hidden under a robot mask.
I was once on a flight where everyone — grown men, grandmas — chose to watch Never Say Never. I watched it, too. It felt like the plane was a safe space where people could, without ridicule, figure out why this Bieber kid was famous. The shock twist was realizing that Bieber deserves fame. He’s a musical genius, a millennial Mozart who dominated a drum kit at just 2 years old.
Here, Conner crushes it at the age of 1, smashing the drums like toddler Tommy Lee. “As soon as I was born, I was dope,” he gloats. Thanks to CG, he’s even better than Biebs. But Popstar doesn’t respect Conner’s talent. Once grown up, he’s a useless pretty-boy dummy who can barely write his own lyrics. In one ballad, he croons, “Fuck me like we fucked Bin Laden.” Another, an acid-bitter satire of pandering do-gooder songs, urges us to support gay marriage while Conner assures his female fans he’s not gay himself, an increasingly spastic paranoia that builds to him blurting hetero garble like “sports!” “one-armed push-ups!” and “Lynyrd Skynyrd!”
We’re supposed to laugh at his garbage music. We do. But guiltily. The catch is, his flops are catchy. The Lonely Island has written a half-dozen trashterpieces that, with inoffensive lyrics, could be actual hits. (Look out, Jared Leto’s 30 Seconds to Mars and Ryan Gosling’s Dead Man’s Bones — if they bothered, these pranksters could smoke you like a sausage.) Hell, even I’d go see Conner’s stadium show if he kept up the holograms of Adam Levine humping Adam Levine.
Despite these joys, we’ve come to the part of the biopic in which Conner must crash. Spectacularly. He and his manager (Tim Meadows) make a disastrous U2-inspired deal to annoy America by uploading his latest album to toasters, microwaves, and fridges. “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore,” grins Conner. And Nas, Usher, 50 Cent, Simon Cowell, Carrie Underwood, A$AP Rocky, RZA, Pink, Pharrell, Snoop Dogg, Seal, and even motherfucking Ringo Starr agree. They’re all here pawning their musical credibility with cameos, even a deadpan perfect Mariah Carey who says she sees herself in Conner’s ditty “I’m So Humble.” Beams the diva, “I instantly connected with that.”
For all the cameos, the best face in the movie is an unknown: comic Chris Redd, who I bet a gold album is about to blow up. Redd plays Conner’s new best frenemy, a fast-flowing, crazy-eyed rapper named Hunter the Hungry who signs on as Conner’s opening act and then starts prank-warring him into a nervous breakdown. When one stage mishap convinces the world Conner was born without a dick, he accuses Hunter of setting him up. Redd stares, unblinking, at the camera and denies it. Then confesses. Then denies it. Then confesses — or does he? It’s like being in the green room with Hannibal Lecter.
Justin Timberlake has a two-joke bit as Conner’s personal chef, a soft-spoken serf with eight ways of chopping raw carrots. But mostly, Popstar mimics what it mocks: Co-directors Taccone and Schaffer are hype men happy to give their old buddy Samberg his first starring film role since 2012’s savaged That’s My Boy. Samberg does them proud — he’s great at playing a pampered dummy. But what we really want to see is Justin Bieber’s reaction. At just 22, his story has already filled two straightforward docs, this lampoon, and his own murder in Zoolander 2. (And yet his real life is funnier than fiction. A few days ago, he showed up at an L.A. club dressed like this.) And then suddenly, near the end of Popstar, Bieber appears. He looks at the lens. He doesn’t say a word. He just holds up two fingers. He’s at peace.