Billboard Cover: The Lonely Island and Andy Samberg Make 'Spinal Tap' for the Viral Era With 'Popstar'
When you're the world's greatest joke-rap trio and you've just finished making a movie for Universal Pictures, there's only one way to cash in on the studio's goodwill: by rolling through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter like you own the place. Which is why Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer -- the Saturday Night Live vets known collectively as The Lonely Island, whose mock pop-umentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping opens June 3 -- find themselves hopping out of a chauffeured SUV in a nondescript parking area at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park on a recent Thursday. "They entered a magical land," mock-narrates Schaffer. "A land that was not cross-promotion for other Universal things, but just coincidentally what the guys wanted to do."
After a quick briefing with a team of park staffers who assure the trio they won't be waiting in any lines -- "Thank gawd, we're prima donnas," deadpans Samberg -- they're led through a bewilderingly Spinal Tap-ish sequence of dark backstage hallways and doors marked "Do Not Enter."
The whole situation almost could be a scene from Popstar, which pulls the curtain back on a very 2016 slice of overly entitled and over-share-y celebrity culture. In it, Samberg, 37, plays Conner4Real, a cheerfully clueless -- and more than vaguely Bieber-ish -- pop megastar who finds himself at a career crossroads when his new surprise-released album fails to connect, even with jams like the Macklemore-inspired "Equal Rights" (in which he doesn't realize gay marriage is legal), "Mona Lisa" ("the original basic bitch," he sings) and the Adam Levine-enhanced "I'm So Humble" (which Levine and Samberg performed in real life on The Voice in May).
Taccone, 39, and Schaffer, 38, who co-directed the movie, play Conner's former bandmates in a legendary hip-hop crew called the Style Boyz who were a key influence on everyone from Nas to Questlove, we learn from some of Popstar's two dozen cameos. (The list also includes Usher, Carrie Underwood and Martin Sheen.) "I won't say who, but I've definitely forgotten people who are in our movie," says Taccone. "The list is so long that I'll be like, 'Oh, yeah! That guy's in it -- he's pretty good!' "
For as long as it has existed, The Lonely Island has dominated its music-as-comedy space, selling 824,000 albums and 7.3 million digital songs (according to Nielsen Music) while racking up 1.7 billion spins on its YouTube channel. It's hard to even think of direct comparisons. Where "Weird Al" Yankovic's biggest hits are all parodies of already huge songs, what Samberg and company do is trickier. They take the spirit of identifiable pop forms, exaggerate them and amp up the absurdity with A-list guest stars, all with hyper specificity and genuine love for the music. "It's true to R&B and pop to be clever in your lyrics -- Kanye [West] and Macklemore and R. Kelly all have really funny lines, and you never know where the self-awareness ends and begins," says Schaffer. "We were trying to go at that" in Popstar.
"They build their ideas into songs that really hold my attention," says Diplo, who knows as much about the anatomy of pop as anyone. "They could be stand-alone songs, give or take some of the funny lyrics. And they're real fans."
With Popstar (which is broadly based on slice of life-meets-concert movies like Justin Bieber's Never Say Never and Katy Perry's Part of Me), Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer have the widest canvas yet to use all the skills they've developed over more than a decade of blending comedy and music, from SNL classics like "Lazy Sunday" and the Justin Timberlake-assisted "Dick in a Box" to actual hits like 2011's Akon-spiked "I Just Had Sex" (which reached No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100) and The Lego Movie's "Everything Is Awesome" (a co-write of theirs that made the top 10 of the Dance/Electronic Songs chart). "When one of our songs is a hit, it actually makes it a little funnier," says Taccone. " 'I'm on a Boat' is two-times platinum -- that's hilarious."
But vastly scaling the group's YouTube-honed vision into a worldwide picture comes with some Hollywood-size pitfalls. For one, music biopic spoofs don't exactly have a great box-office track record. "Tenacious D, Walk Hard, Rock Star, even Spinal Tap -- all basically box-office failures," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "That's not to say that this one won't break through, but the deck is stacked against it."
There's the question of timing: The crew's first album, 2009's Incredibad, moved an impressive 455,000 copies. By their third, 2013's The Wack Album, sales were down to 74,000. And then there's Samberg's prospects as a movie star. Even though he managed the transition from SNL darling to sitcom star with Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, connecting with movie audiences is a rarer trick. Even Jimmy Fallon, Samberg's friend and a similarly multihyphenate talent, was famously unable to make the jump.
Suddenly, a four-seat car comes sliding down an overhead rail and they strap in. All three Lonely Island guys wear glasses, and appear concerned that they might fly off. "I think this is going to be more intense than we thought it would be," says Samberg gravely. An employee in a Hogwarts outfit suggests that he should hold on to his baseball cap. "The whole time?" asks Samberg incredulously.
"If you feel comfortable with it," she says.
"I'm not comfortable with it!" he yells, as the ride lurches to life. "Ahhh, we're moving! I'm putting my hat under my butt!" Taccone cracks up.
It's not hard, especially at Harry Potter World, to imagine these grown men making each other laugh in exactly this way as kids. All three grew up in Berkeley, Calif., where they became friends in junior high, bonding over skateboarding and hip-hop. "There are very few people who are that close," says Apatow. "It's similar to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg -- they're true soulmates. I'm jealous. Where are my two friends like that?" They split up for college (Samberg went to New York University; Schaffer to University of California, Santa Cruz; and Taccone to UCLA) before regrouping in a tiny Los Angeles apartment together after graduation. As Schaffer recalls, post-ride, "We had a meeting and said, 'What do we do, move to L.A. and try to' " -- he slips into verbal air quotes -- " 'make it' together?" Adds Taccone, "Well, yeah, we wanted to make TV and movies together."
"And we've done that!" says Samberg brightly, as if the thought had occurred to him for the first time. "And now we're at Harry Potter World with a security guard."
Almost as soon as they arrived at the theme park, the guys were excited about the prospect of trying butterbeer, a candy-laced drink the wizards guzzle in the Potter books. Moments after they sit down for lunch at the tavern-ish Three Broomsticks -- the entire castle turret-like outside deck has been closed down to give the trio privacy -- frosty mugs of the stuff, which turns out to be a frozen concoction of cream soda and butterscotch, appears. "This butterbeer is pretty good," says Schaffer. Adds Samberg, "It's got me a little jittery, though."
Today it's even more surreal than it normally would be to lunch at Hogwarts. Hours earlier the world learned that Prince had died. All three Lonely Island guys met him at SNL, when he played the show in 2006 -- and they got invited to his private after-afterparty. "We showed up at like 4:30 in the morning to this closed club," says Schaffer. "It was just him chilling and listening to his own album."
The idea for Popstar came from a pragmatic place: What better topic for a movie that would include lots of the music the trio loves to make? "But it was a longer process than it normally would have been because of that -- it was like writing a full album and a full movie," says Schaffer, chowing down on a kid-friendly lunch of chicken fingers, fries and grapes. "So by the time the movie comes out it will be two-and-a-half years straight working on it." (The soundtrack, which Republic Records will release with the movie on June 3, includes songs that didn't make it into the film: "There's one with Akon we felt was very much in character, and was even written into the script," says Schaffer. "But during the editing process we realized we didn't need it.")
Corralling the guest stars came pretty easy, mostly due to The Lonely Island's long track record of making everyone from Rihanna ("Shy Ronnie") to Michael Bolton ("Jack Sparrow") come off as hilarious. "They genuinely wanted all the cameo stars to score comedically, and from working on SNL they know how to be around big stars," says Sarah Silverman, who plays Conner's brassy publicist. "And it's not their personalities to be weird or sycophantish -- they're cool and know what they're looking for out of, say, Seal, who is amazing."
Making the movie proved to be a major commitment for the guys, who have all branched off into their own careers. Samberg was available whenever he wasn't needed on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But Taccone and Schaffer cleared their schedules to work on Popstar full time. All three say that Apatow was a key influence on the movie's tone. "He really helped with story structure and giving it some actual emotional stakes," says Samberg. "He encouraged us to make the movie about friendships and relationships, which was awesome. And he pitched super funny shit."
"It's actually his dick in the window of the car," jokes Schaffer, referring to a moment of full-frontal physical comedy. "He wanted to show it because he was like, 'I've had this normal but really well-proportioned dick my whole life, and I've never shown it. And I'm afraid I'm getting older and going to lose the bod soon.' "
The center of Popstar revolves around Conner's frayed relationship with the Style Boyz bandmates he left behind when his solo career took off. (Taccone's character is still in Conner's orbit, as his helmet-equipped DJ; Schaffer's character has become a rage-fueled farmer.) It's a dynamic that the trio understands better than most. When the three were hired at SNL (after scoring a writing gig with the MTV Movie Awards in 2005, when Fallon hosted) it almost felt like a miracle. But only Samberg joined as a cast member. "Nobody was ever mad about it. We understand the way it works -- the way that certain opportunities sometimes get given to the person who's in front," says Schaffer as Samberg shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "It never created a rift between us. We'd all work the same amount all week and then, at the end, Andy might get invited to a cool party, and we'd be like, 'Have a good party!' " Adds Taccone, "I think we actually became stronger friends, going through that. Because we were friends and then we were business partners, and when we make anything together it's all of that."
Samberg, of course, still is the guy out front -- and as much as Popstar relies on his Brooklyn Nine-Nine celebrity and broad likability to help open the movie, he insists it's not something he gives a lot of thought to. "I'm just as excited about making movies as I am about anything else," he says. "It's about how excited I am about any given idea -- when the idea is this movie, I'm really excited about it. But I'm equally excited about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the same goes for something that's a little weirder, like [the tennis mockumentary] 7 Days in Hell, which is a thing I did on HBO. Obviously the movie is a big deal in terms of all that goes into it, and it took us a really long time -- but a big part of that was we also got to make an album, which is another thing I get really excited about.
Whatever pressure the trio feels surrounding Popstar pales in comparison to their main concern: Kanye West. (They're all huge fans.) After all, how much room is there to parody a world where The Life of Pablo, one of the highest-profile albums of the year, was launched with a combined fashion show/listening party at a Kardashian-packed Madison Square Garden -- and where, officially at least, the album still isn't finished? "I know," says Samberg, with exaggerated theatricality. "We were chasing Kanye and the truth of what was happening in his world the whole time we were writing. Because nothing we could think of is as interesting as his truth."