Before the Toronto Film Festival premiere of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, the performer confessed to the crowd, “I basically stalked Jonathan Demme to do this.” Which starts making sense instantly — forgive the pun — because if you want someone to capture your live show, you can’t do better than Demme, who pretty much rebuilt the mold for the concert film in 1984 with Stop Making Sense.
Just as he did with the multi-layered art rock of Talking Heads and then with Neil Young in three separate concert docs that spanned the bridge between acoustic and electric in the weathered Canadian poet-rocker’s sprawling songbook, Demme gives you intimate access to Timberlake’s pulsating bedroom/dancefloor R&B. Fans will lap it up once the movie starts streaming Oct. 12 on Netflix.
The title of the film is significant. While there’s no question that the onetime Mouseketeer and ex-*NSYNC heartthrob is the commanding headliner, there’s also something refreshingly inclusive about the degree to which he showcases and interacts with the 25 or so performers sharing his stage. This is not a show in which a preening star treats his backup vocalists and musicians as the help, or obliges his dancers to work up a sweat while he coasts. Throughout, Timberlake feeds off the other performers’ energy as much as the audience’s worship.
It’s noteworthy that after two years and 134 dates on the 20/20 Experience World Tour, the act is drilled to perfection but never robotic. All six dancers combine precision with a personal signature, as do the musicians and singers who frequently step out from behind their 1940s big band-style JT music stands to cut loose. Timberlake is a magnetic performer who moves with twitchy sensuality in his Tom Ford tux. But I could just as easily have watched bespectacled vocalist Jack E. King III get his groove on all night, since there’s nothing quite so ecstatically graceful as a heavy-set dude with funk in his bones.
Reteaming with his Stop Making Sense producer Gary Goetzman of Playtone, and with cinematographer Declan Quinn, who has worked with Demme on a handful of projects, including Rachel Getting Married and Ricki and the Flash, the director filmed the Timberlake tour’s final two shows at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas in January 2015.
Demme is no less interested in process than performance, but he saves the detailed scrutiny of the show’s complex logistics and infinite moving parts until the terrific end-credits footage. Here we get to watch the load-in as a crew of structural engineers and riggers assembles the honeycomb backdrop that will serve as a screen for video and laser elements, while the various stage risers and movable gantries are locked into place. Sound and lighting checks follow, with a fast-motion spin through the installation of stadium seating banks. More than just filler, this is fascinating evidence of the amount of work that goes into putting on such a large-scale arena show.
Of course, the show itself is what matters most. The first credit to come up after the star takes his final bow reads “Dedicated to Prince Nelson Rogers,” and the influence of the late virtuoso artist is all over Timberlake’s tunes, packed with blasting horns, seismic percussion and fat guitar licks. But Timberlake’s presentation is more of a meeting between Rat Pack style and Michael Jackson showmanship, the latter kinship evident not just in a cover of “Human Nature,” but also in the occasional hint of a moonwalk slide and the assured embrace of falsetto.
Timberlake’s music arguably is more the result of superb production than songwriting artistry (longtime producer Timbaland is glimpsed late in the show), and his song lyrics tend to be interchangeable variations around the theme of ain’t-nobody-gonna-love-you-real-good-like-I-do-babe. That means some of the set bleeds together, particularly in the early numbers, where only the massive hit “Rock Your Body” notably pops.
But the performance is consistently dynamic, whether Timberlake is lacquering a twangy guitar strum onto “What Goes Around,” injecting tent-revival spirit into “Drink You Away,” or soaring over the audience in wild party mode on “Let the Groove Get In.” The show peaks in the expert build of the final section, acquiring a fresh jolt of insouciant attitude with “Suit and Tie” and then exploding into the irresistible beats of “SexyBack” and “Mirrors.”
Quinn’s cameras appear to be everywhere at once, capturing countless seemingly spontaneous flourishes of individual musicians and performers without ever taking their eyes off the boss for long. And Paul Snyder’s edit condenses the slick package into a tight 90 minutes. While no concert film ever quite equals the charge of actually being there, this will more than satisfy the Timberlake faithful.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.