In 2009, Spinal Tap released its third album, Back from the Dead. Spinal Tap was a fictional hard rock band, invented by comic geniuses for the 1984 mockumentary, nay — rockumentary — “This Is Spinal Tap,” but the songs were as real as those by the bands they satirized so splendidly. Spinal Tap the film began and ended in 1984, but the band lived on. Spinal Tap was, and continues to be, a classic example of life imitating art and art imitating life.
By the time Back from the Dead was released, a new revolution in music comedy was underway. Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, a trio of men in their late 20s who grew up together, had joined the cast and crew of “Saturday Night Live” a few years before, and their digital shorts — pre-recorded music videos that transcended parody into singular comedic experiences — propelled them to stardom. “Lazy Sunday,” one their first digital shorts, became one of the first viral videos ever. Their other works, like “Dick in a Box,” “I Just Had Sex” and “I’m on a Boat,” became the earworm anthems of millennials yearning for a new musical comedy experience.
The trio of The Lonely Island, with their new film “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” find themselves straddling these two worlds. With a mockumentary format surely inspired by “Spinal Tap” and updated for the emoji and Snapchat generation, “Popstar” follows Conner4Real (Samberg), a former member of The Style Boyz, a boy band he formed with two childhood friends, Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone). After a dispute over songwriting credits between Conner and Lawrence, and as Conner becomes the star of the group despite his comparative lack of talent, the band splits. Conner becomes a solo artist, with the taken-for-granted Owen serving as his DJ, and Lawrence becomes a farmer in rural Colorado, carving wood into replicas of the awards he should have received.
Conner’s sophomore album, Connquest, is about to drop, and his intransigence has ruined it. As the negative reviews pour in, Conner goes on tour and his record’s sales flounder. Joining him are Owen, his manager, Harry (Tim Meadows, “Mean Girls”), Paula, his publicist (Sarah Silverman, “I Smile Back”) and, later, Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd, “Empire”), an abrasive up-and-coming hip-hop artist who opens for Conner. As the popularity dynamics shift — and Hunter climbs to the top of the charts while Conner and his bloated ego grasp onto the rapidly fleeting goodwill of his old fans — our protagonist faces his ultimate challenge: apologizing to Lawrence. He needs his literal band of friends, the only stable success in his life.
“Popstar” works primarily as easy yet smart social commentary. Conner is a product of this generation: he’s an over-sharer and he’s over-shared. He posts incessant selfie confessionals on YouTube while his missteps are instantaneously uploaded to the masses via Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Gone are the days when an artist’s work speaks for itself, when anxious ears await new sonic creations in between deserts of patience. For better or worse, we are constantly in touch with our famous idols.
And boy is Conner4Real a deserved idol. His songs are catchy tunes with rhymes so creative they demand repeated listening. The songs, written by The Lonely Island as a team, echo their dizzyingly hilarious digital shorts (in fact, one song, a heavily censored “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” showed up on a recent episode of “Saturday Night Live”). But, unfortunately, the film tends to show the melodrama underlying the songs’ production over the songs themselves. Samberg and the crew are undoubtedly master comedians, but their masterpieces are their songs, not the satire of pointless drama.
And by following a predictable and obvious story arc, the sum of the film’s parts remains forgettable. The film invests too heavily in talking head cameos — Mariah Carey, Ringo Starr and DJ Khaled are just a few of the countless celebrities featured — and the laughs aren’t so much uproarious as they are obliged chuckles. The biggest laughs come when “SNL” alum appear, including Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader, who are unbelievably funny in just about anything they work on.
In fact, it’s the entire spirit of “SNL” that keeps the film afloat: to simply see these three goofs reunited and doing what they do best — creating beautifully borderline-offensive songs — in the company of their fellow “SNL” brethren is enough.
And that’s for real.