Lonely Island: ‘Popstar’ Is Not About Justin Bieber. Sort of.
Lonely Island’s new concert mockumentary, ‘Popstar,’ is being called the next ‘Spinal Tap.’ Andy Samberg and friends explain its dick-joking, Bieber-mocking secret to hilarity.
Their profile rocketed to superstar status after they put their dicks in a box. Now, with one carefully placed, shockingly funny, and—fair warning—much more explicit dick joke, the guys of Lonely Island are poised to become bonafide movie stars.
“It’s a good-looking dick in our movie!” says Jorma Taccone, the writer-director-actor who makes up one third of the comedy trio.
It kicks off a giddy giggle fit with his collaborators Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer, the remaining members of Lonely Island and his co-stars in their new R-rated concert mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Dubbed “Spinal Tap for the viral era,” the film skewers the trend of masturbatory popstar concert documentaries popularized recently by the likes of Justin Bieber, One Direction, and Katy Perry—but dials the pearl-clutching raunch up to 11.
It’s the funniest movie you’ll see this summer.
“Here’s my question: On HBO, are you allowed to show an erect penis?” Samberg counters. “I don’t think you can do it anywhere, actually,” Taccone replies.
“So in those Real Sex docs you never see an erect penis?” an aghast Schaffer asks, his HBO-sneaking childhood destroyed. “You see them doing it, but you don’t see it,” Taccone responds, suddenly the authority on such matters. “It’s a shame, because a hard dick is also funny.”
To be fair, Lonely Island is an authority on dick humor.
Of all the “Digital Short” music videos they created during their seven years as writers and performers on Saturday Night Live, none captured the zeitgeist with as much bashful fervor as “Dick in a Box.” It became one of the most viewed videos on YouTube of all time, placed third on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest SNL sketches ever, and won the group an Emmy Award.
The secret recipe: expert use of a celebrity cameo (in this case Justin Timberlake) and a delicately toed line between alienating shock factor and celebratory embrace of something a little naughty—all set to music so professionally produced, the song’s musical appeal itself is undeniable.
That recipe is executed scrumptiously in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It boasts more celebrity cameos than an Ellen DeGeneres selfie, joke-a-minute absurdist humor, hilariously insightful commentary skewering the state of the modern pop star, and that tightrope between boundary-pushing and offensive that the group walks with perfect Bieber-like swagger.
Take the film’s marquee song, “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” (whose lyrics include: “she said she wanted me to fuck her harder than the military fucked Bin Laden”) as proof as that latter point.
“We had a lot of songs for the movie, and we shot a lot of stage performance,” Samberg says. “We always knew that the friends that we played the songs for laughed really hard at that one. So we put it in, and it played great. We’ve had a ton of screenings and no one’s ever really complained about it. So we were like, ‘OK! I guess we did it! I guess people are OK with this.’”
The song comes at a crucial plot point. The film revolves around Conner4Real, a pop star amalgam who strongly resembles Justin Bieber and whose arrogance over the course of his meteoric rise leads him to ignore his childhood best friends and former boy bandmates Owen (played by Taccone) and Lawrence (played by Schaffer).
He releases a new album that he thinks is his greatest artistic achievement yet.
But with tone-deaf songs like “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” it understandably begins to destroy his career. The film is a pointed critique on the ridiculousness of fame—Conner4Real counts a Perspective Manipulator (a short person who stands next to him in photos) as a member of his entourage—and is so spot-on in its take on commercialized pop music that it even predicted Apple’s assault of mandatory U2 on our iPhones.
Produced by Judd Apatow, written by Lonely Island, and directed by Taccone and Schaffer, it is 88 minutes packed with all of the appeal of the group’s best Digital Shorts, but with the emotional maturity and story structure of, well, a film. The summer’s best comedy film (so far), to be specific.
Here’s how they did it.
Were you expecting everyone to think that you were parodying Justin Bieber with Conner4Real?
Andy: We were once saw the materials. The title of the movie and the marketing has made it seem a lot more like a Bieber thing. [Note: Bieber’s own concert doc was titled Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.] But it was never intended to be Bieber. It was sort of everybody in pop music and rap music, just heightened.
So Bieber is just one of the artists people can make comparisons to?
Andy: There’s basically three choices once he’s a white guy who looks like him and we give him that haircut: Timberlake, Bieber, and Macklemore. Those are the three guys who, on a glance when you look at him on a poster, come to mind. We’ve had people just today say, “So you made a whole movie about Macklemore…” Most are saying Bieber though.
Jorma: We’re not surprised by any of it.
Andy: There are only two jokes in the movie that are actually Bieber. That drumming joke, and the Anne Frank House thing. The rest is more just us talking about the music industry and the pop world.
Jorma: And he raps more than he sings. Musically, he’s more like a Drake or a Kanye, in terms of how much he sings and raps.
Akiva: But the wardrobe change is straight out of the Katy Perry documentary. Not the naked part, but that’s the wardrobe change inspiration. [Note: Think this, but more explicit.] We’re not even making fun of her for it. We watched her movie and were like, “That’s really cool! What if we use it in ours, but make it something else?” We’re also not taking down anyone. It’s not mean.
Jorma: We watched a ton of those music documentaries.
Was that fun?
Andy: It was nice to have an excuse to watch something fluffy.
Jorma: And be like, “We’re watching these for work!”
Akiva: Have you seen the One Direction concert doc?
I have. It made me like them for the first time.
Jorma: The same with us!
Akiva: We finished and were like, “Look at these guys!”
Andy: They might be the best!
People going into this movie might have the assumption that this movie is just an extended Digital Short. Is that a liability, or is it a selling point?
Andy: That is the fear.
Jorma: As long as they just go I think it’s fine. They’ll find out that it’s not.
Andy: I don’t think people who like the Digital Shorts will be disappointed. I think we deliver a lot of that vibe. There are tons of songs that are our songs and performance style.
Akiva: It delivers to that core fanbase, but we hope it can get wider.
Andy: One of the reasons we were excited to work with Judd Apatow was that he’s really good at making a story work in a movie and having you care about the character and track their emotional arcs. That became what the story itself was about. It’s about friendship, and how can you lose yourself when your life changes.
There are some elements of art imitating life, with this three-person band of friends who have known each other for years and years. How much of your own relationship and career journeys did you put in, even if you maybe didn’t realize it until you finished writing?
Jorma: There are elements of each other that have all been mixed up in each of the characters.
Andy: There’s the obvious parallel that we’re friends who grew up working together.
Akiva: And Andy’s the most famous. So we have that experience. We could see where that could go wrong easily. It hasn’t for us. But in moments when Andy would be invited to a party that we weren’t, even though we had worked just as hard that week, you could see how if Andy was an asshole, that could be a problem. You know what I mean? So it definitely made us able to write it, but I don’t think it’s actually that similar.
Were you nervous about some of these jokes? That the Bin Laden song might not hit the right way?
Jorma: For sure. There’s a lot of needles that we’re threading in that song.
Andy: We had a lot of songs for the movie, and we shot a lot of stage performance. We always knew that the friends that we played the songs for laughed really hard at that one. So we put it in early, and it played great. We’ve had a ton of screenings and no one’s ever really complained about it. So we were like, “OK! I guess we did it! I guess people are OK with this.”
Akiva: And there’s context for it. His album is not doing well. And people think it is a little bit offensive, and a little out of line. That his album is a little out of touch. I think giving people that as the context of the song helps.
Andy: “Dick in a Box” is a wildly inappropriate song. If you thought that the people making it thought that it was genuinely good, then there’d be a problem. There’s the same conceit.
Do you have fantasies of performing it at the Oscars? I definitely do.
Akiva: The Oscars is very comfortable with cursing and being controversial…
Andy: Having performed at the Oscars now once, I’d say I have a fantasy of performing anything at the Oscars. To me that’s the coolest.
There are a ton of celebrity cameos in this, but it doesn’t seem gratuitous. They work. It’s sort of the opposite to, say, Zoolander 2, as a recent example, where critics decried the celebrity cameos in that film. What’s the secret to them working?
Jorma: I think it maybe just feels more appropriate for a genre. We are making a documentary-style film, a popumentary, so it makes more sense that pop artists would be commenting.
Akiva: It feels more in the DNA of the documentary about rock stars that you’d have these cameos. I think it feels more, not in relation to Zoolander 2 but in relation to anything, organic in and of itself. But also in editing we did have a rule, which was to not cut to a celebrity talking head unless it was really needed to move forward the story. We had edits where we had too many of them. We’d have some in that were sort of funny but then in the end it felt like a waste of the audience’s time. Then we had some in there that were for story that we thought the audience needed, but it turns out they were getting it the whole time.
Andy: They were ahead of it.
Akiva: So you want to be right on that edge. We felt like we found it by the end. And as a consequence of that, there were people who were really funny and really good and did a huge favor by coming to shoot for 45 minutes to do an interview that is not in the movie because we held ourselves to that strict thing. It was very tempting to be like, “Oh, let’s put in this one because they bothered to come!”
Andy: It’s hard to cut famous people.
Akiva: That you begged to come.
Andy: Judd encouraged us, though. “That’s how it goes.”
Thank you for not cutting Mariah Carey though.
Andy: She got a big laugh!
Akiva: Sets the standard.
I was going to ask if it would be a hard sell to, like, convince Adam Levine to hump himself as a hologram. But if I were Adam Levine, I’d think it’s so cool to do that.
Jorma: I think the moment it happened, he knew, “Oh this is going to be in the movie.” The way we were laughing, he knew.
Akiva: When we were editing and I first put them together, I took video on my phone and texted it to him. I think he was pretty pleased. He said it was taking every bone in his body not to immediately put it on his social media.
Andy: Adam Levine is a delightful guy. He’s really turned into a big collaborator of ours. He let us shoot footage right before a Maroon 5 show to get footage of me as Conner running around stage with a huge audience going nuts.
Jorma: That was one of the first things we did actually.
Akiva: When he’s in a white outfit slapping people’s hands, that’s it. It looks real, because it is.
What was that like for you?
Andy: It was fun. Like, holy shit!
Jorma: It also gave us footage that was like, alright, this is the standard of what the footage has to look like when we’re doing it later on our own stages with fewer extras. This is what it really looked like, so this is what we have to make it look like.