What do David Byrne, Neil Young, and Justin Timberlake have in common? Until recently, the answer was: “As little as three white, male musicians possibly could have in common.” Now, that’s no longer the case. Because now, with the arrival of “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids,” each of them has been the subject of at least one concert film by Jonathan Demme. Timberlake may have nine Grammy Awards to his name, but make no mistake: Being placed on equal footing with Talking Heads and a folk-rock god is the most prestigious honor of the pop superstar’s endlessly surprising career.
It’s also one hell of an endorsement. Demme is among the film world’s most knowledgeable and outspoken music freaks (a fact as clear in his narrative work like “Something Wild” and “Rachel Getting Married” as it is in his docs), and his taste borders on the unimpeachable. If he says that Britney Spears’ ex-boyfriend is worth taking seriously, you listen.
In this post “Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping” world, that’s not the easiest case to make. Demme reveres musicians, but pop is an easy genre to take for granted, easy to sing, memorize, and obsess over while still claiming an ironic detachment. You can recognize the forward-thinking genius of “FutureSex/LoveSounds” or be dazzled by the unchecked ambition of “The 20/20 Experience” and still find yourself thinking about someone like Timberlake as more of a celebrity than an artist — still find yourself making reflexive quips about his history in the tabloids.
Here is the antidote to that kind of thinking. If nothing else, this loving — borderline fetishistic — concert movie makes a compelling case for the musicianship, artistry, and sheer athleticism of pop music. Well, good pop music, anyway. Immortalizing the last performance of a 15-month world tour that was attended by more than two million people, “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids” argues that the best way to truly know a performer is to see them on stage.
It opens with some quick vérité footage of Timberlake rolling up to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and it budgets time for the key members of the Tennessee Kids band to introduce themselves to the camera, but the movie completely surrenders itself to the show from the moment J.T. is lifted onto the dance floor.
There’s no denying that the guy knows how to put on a concert. Decked out in Tom Ford-designed duds that allow the singer to split the difference between James Bond and Johnny Cash, Timberlake stands in front of a massive wall of blinking lights and launches into a relentless medley of mega-hits, the Tennessee Kids blaring body and soul in to songs that have previously sounded like digital confections.
For a show that’s been choreographed within an inch of its life, Timberlake and his backup dancers popping and locking like they’ve been possessed by the holy ghost. We’re only treated to about half of the 30-song set list (which is more than enough), and Timberlake is often too busy gasping for air to bother singing over his backup track, but it still feels like an Olympic-level feat of strength. And nobody ever stops smiling — there’s a certain magic to the last performance of anything, but you get the sense that the crew brought the same enthusiasm and presentness to each of the 134 dates on the tour. Professionalism and consistency are core tenets of Timberlake’s brand, and he wears them well. Still, every tiny deviation from the norm feels like a breath of fresh air; you’ll be surprised how excited you get when the pop star pauses to do a shot with Timbaland between songs.
Mileage will inevitably vary with this sort of thing, as die hard fans will find more to love than casual ones — the film is front-loaded with Timberlake’s most popular bangers, and the back half is a monotonous slog for those of us who’ve never bothered to dig beyond the singles. But this isn’t Demme’s first rodeo, and he knows how to capture the action so that your eyes remain interested even when your ears check out. Elegantly cutting between (what feels like) a dozen different cameras, he puts us on stage, behind it, above it, and everywhere else. The viewpoints never feel random, they never pull attention away from where it should be, and the edit reveals things that nobody who was actually at the show could ever have seen for themselves — this isn’t as good as being in the front row, it’s much, much, much better.
The sheer spectacle that Demme has captured will be almost impossible to fully appreciate when watched at home (and since the movie is premiering on Netflix, that’s where most people will get to see it), but it’s an exuberant thrill on the big screen. And that’s the idea, an idea that is reinforced every time the film cuts to the crowd and sees a glowing minefield of iPhones being held to the sky: In the age of Periscope, when immediacy is prioritized above vision and social media is stepping on cinema’s toes, there’s something inherently appealing about watching a concert that happened almost two years ago. “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids” may not convince everybody that Mr. Jessica Biel should be spoken of in the same breath as Demme’s previous subjects, and the show offers way too much of the same to justify the lack of more backstage footage (J.T. seems like a fun guy to follow!), but it resolves as a necessary reminder that crowd-sourced filmmaking can’t hold a candle to the real thing.
Oh yeah, and “Mirrors” is legit.
“Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix on October 12th, 2016.