Some comedies, like good science fiction, say as much about their own time as they do about whatever outlandish premise they revolve around. For this reason, their relevance can either wan as times change, or they can become essential artifacts of the society they reflect. Popstar, released in 2016 to box office indifference, presents a fascinating example of a comedy which is patently absurd on the surface but which could strike a future generation as a largely realistic portrayal of a particular slice of life, circa America in the adolescence of social media. The line between satire and reality has been obliterated in the post-Trump era, and a film like Popstar gains comedic heft with the sense that its bizarre songs and depictions of nutso behaviors might actually be closer to real life than parody.

Directed by Lonely Island veterans Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, Popstar’s subtitle, Never Stop Never Stopping, captures some of the clever wordplay and inside-joke riffery that underpins much of the humor but which could also be taken entirely at face value by someone who isn’t aware that actual pop star Justin Bieber once put out a concert film called Never Say Never. Bieber seems to be a frequent target of Popstar‘s satire, but one doesn’t need to know that to enjoy the absurdity of the film, which layers jokes upon jokes, and then, like a skilled stand-up comic, often extends a bit to squeeze a second-wind laugh out of a scene long after it’s gone off the rails.

Structured as a mash-up of a behind-the-music documentary and a concert film, the story follows the career of Connor Friel (Andy Samberg), aka Connor4Real, the breakout performer from a fictitious boy band called the Style Boyz, whose solo career is tanking without the lyric and beat-making genius of his former bandmates (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone). This description hinges on that word “fictitious,” since the lyrics and beats of the Style Boyz really do possess all the catchiness and credibility of radio singles. (Several of the numbers were written and/or produced by Greg Kurstin, a real-life Grammy-winning producer.) Even Connor’s solo efforts, hilariously and offensively bad, are entirely credible pastiches of pretentious and overreaching pop songs. Recurring cameos from stars like Ringo Starr, Pharrell Williams, DJ Khaled, and Justin Timberlake, singing the praises of the Style Boyz and Connor4Real, create the surreal sense that this parody is only one degree separated from reality.

With production values and performances indistinguishable from contemporary music videos and concert films, Popstar builds on the work that the Lonely Island crew did during their tenure at “Saturday Night Live” when Samberg was a cast member and Schaffer and Taccone staff writers. At times, the film plays like an anthology of Digital Shorts, all stitched together under Conner4Real’s redemption arc. It’s not a terribly original storyline, but the appeal lies less in the premise than in the execution, which is meticulously realized and performed with an infectious and childlike glee.

Of course, it’s hard to believe that a song featuring the lyric “She wanted to fuck me harder than the US government / Fucked Bin Laden” would be a popular hit (and incredibly catchy), but it’s also hard to believe that a vulgar reality TV host knee-deep in bankruptcy would become the President of the United States. Popstar came out in the summer of 2016 when America was just about to slide into years of jaw-dropping denial of reality, and perhaps this is what led to the film’s box office disappointment. Its pointed absurdity might have been slightly ahead of its time, or too much to cope with on top of the nation’s political insanity. But, like an earlier film from the same Lonely Island creators, Hot Rod (2007), Popstar deserves another look as an example of joyful satire from a time when satire itself was becoming an endangered commodity.

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