For decades Jonathan Demme has been making what he calls “performance films”, filming live music and theatre within distinct and identifiable spaces. They’re not concert films, per se, in that they don’t aim to capture the sense of being at a concert. Demme’s performance films are about recognising the artifice in stage shows, acknowledging the collective effort involved in their creation. His most widely-known performance film is Stop Making Sense, featuring the band Talking Heads. Demme seamlessly spliced together three nights of concert footage from the Hollywood Pantages Theatre to faithfully capture the energy and creativity of the 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour, making the film as much a work authored by Demme as the band itself. His latest performance film, released worldwide on Netflix in the past week, is a markedly different affair.1 Stop Making Sense is a itself a spectacle, a collaborative presentation of one band’s essence. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids peels back the spectacle, not through the insertion of conventional documentary interview or backstage footage (as in Demme’s Neil Young trilogy) but through a focus on the intimacy of performance.
Instead of opening with a showstopper, as Timberlake does with a drawn-out rendition of “Pusher Love Girl”, Demme spends the first ten minutes of the film with the titular Kids, Timberlake’s touring band. We learn their names, their instruments, their hometowns.2 It’s not just a clever way to delay satisfaction but it’s also essential to the film’s strategy of presentation; the introductions are a roll call, we don’t just have the character of Justin Timberlake on stage, we’ve got around 20 named musicians, singers and dancers too. These introductions are also essential in humanising Timberlake. There’s an awkwardness that marks his interactions with the camera before the show begins; he briefly comments on the weather, asks a camera operator if he wants something to eat, fist bumps a venue manager apropos of nothing. It’s a performative casualness, Timberlake straining to seem down to earth. This might just be because it’s so hard to take superstars at face value and their actions as sincere when there’s a camera around them. The way the Tennessee Kids act around their headliner, though, force you to check these assumptions.
Before the show, Timberlake gives the Kids a pep talk. “Tonight, when you’re up there, look to your right, look to your left. That’s who this show is for, it’s for all of us, okay?” The sense of real community and camaraderie only gets stronger from here. They hold hands and pray, they clap, Timberlake leads a chant: “We are the greatest, right here in Vegas. We are the greatest, right here in Vegas.” Then, an abrupt title card: “The final performance, after two years on the road together, of JT + The Tennessee Kids 20/20 Experience World Tour“. The next time Timberlake fist bumps someone it’s oddly emotional, because post-title card we know this film is not just a celebration of the tour, it’s also an elegy for it.
Of course, such contemplative moments are not at the forefront of the show itself, a tightly cut collection of Timberlake’s greatest solo hits (though sorely lacking the best track from the much maligned The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2, “Amnesia”). Editor Paul Snyder, whose background is in short-form documentary, comedy and music videos, cut over 100 hours of footage into a sleek 90-minute package, neatly excising many of the songs performed in that night’s show; the full concert would have run nearly three hours.3 Another clever editing decision is in the cutting between many camera angles early on to establish a false sense of exhausted coverage. Snyder cuts between an overhead camera, a locked mid-shot on Timberlake, a POV shot from a drummer, shots from either side of the stage and a wide shot (among others) all in the first five songs. When a unique camera angle appears many songs later it’s an amusing surprise. The ability to pull off this trick is thanks to the meticulous planning of Demme, DOP Declan Quinn and his camera team. Fourteen camera operators worked on the night, with two cameras on a full row-length dolly and a roving camera operator on stage (who, like the band, sported a tuxedo), in addition to the six fixed cameras.4 These camera decisions, along with the precise sound mixing, see Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids move beyond a colourful technical showcase. As a tight dolly shot pans past the backup singers, their voices are raised in the sound mix relative to Timberlake; crowd noise is very much dialed down, unless Timberlake calls upon them or the camera reveals them.
As Timberlake himself says, this is a show for him and his band, not for the crowd. So too, the film. It only feels natural that Demme regularly moves away from Timberlake to watch his talented backing musicians, singers and dancers, and not just because of the equal billing in the film’s title. Demme wants us to spot Dontae Winslow’s red-lipped trumpet, to realise midway through that the band has had a costume change because they now sport fake undone bow ties made out of tape. The intimate gaze hits Timberlake too; in a tightly framed shot we see him tear up as the final song, an impassioned “Mirrors,” comes to its end. The reason why Demme regularly notes in interviews that Stop Making Sense captured the final Talking Heads tour on film is because he sees his performance films as always about more than just the show. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, despite being Demme’s most extravagant performance film, is also a deceptively intimate portrait of a well-oiled musical machine.
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