A fitting conclusion for a man whose career ended too soon.
It’s fitting that Jonathan Demme’s final film should be a concert documentary. Not only did the director revolutionize the format, he typically used the concert film to distill his own humanist notions into a direct address between his camera and the real artists being filmed. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids begins like many of Demme’s music movies: not with the start of the concert itself but with the lead-up to the show. It starts with Justin Timberlake arriving at the MGM in Las Vegas, where the show will be played, but the scene quickly pivots away from the star attraction to interview band members and backup dancers. There are also scenes of pre-show rituals, from prayers to group-huddle chants. At last, the concert starts, but the camera remains below the stage as Timberlake gets in a platform that will lift him up, and we see him make some last-minute talk with crew, take a swig of water, then get into position as the platform starts to rise. Before a single note has been played, Demme has laid out a narrative, one of the sheer scale of talent it takes on to put a modern blockbuster concert, and how a solo act must delegate nearly every role as much like a director as a performer.
When the show begins, the true proportion of that scale is revealed in the mesmerizing backdrop for the performance, a grid of hexagonal screens that project spotlights, lasers, images and even distorted live feeds of Timberlake performing. As the show progresses, the screens shift and reconfigure, turning the flat wall into a geodesic structure that renders each image in angular fragments. At times, the whole thing resembles something out of a German Expressionist film, particularly when a heavily processed reflection of Timberlake’s face appears looming over all like a dictator. As for the stage itself, its minimalistic glass becomes an elaborate construction about halfway into the set when it suddenly rises off the ground and provides a whole new tier of space for Timberlake and the dancers to explore.
The hypermodern production provides a stark contrast with the earthier, retro funk that Timberlake receives from his backing band. Replicating the heavily syncopated beats of Timbaland’s work with the singer using actual instruments, the Tennessee Kids infuse Timberlake’s music with a level of soul absent from his studio work. There’s still a great deal of heavy electronic production, but Timberlake much more ably pulls off his “white Prince” approach when actually complemented by real instruments. Just listen to the blistering guitar solo that caps FutureSex/LoveSounds club banger “My Love,” which is transformed into some strange power ballad by the guitar. “LoveStoned” is even further transformed, made plaintive as Timberlake takes a position behind a piano to moan where he once strutted.
The effect on Timberlake’s music is obvious, but so too is the impact on the man’s actual demeanor. The singer is playful from the start, making casual asides to the band and carrying that camaraderie into his tone with the audience. He says the usual rock star lines to get the crowd to cheer, but there’s a winking quality to them that lets the crowd feel in on the pandering. Timberlake does call-and-response work not only with the crowd but the Tennessee Kids, who weave in and out of the front of the stage with the star and get in on his intricate dance choreography. If Timberlake’s studio material can sometimes feel too airless, this is loose-limbed and organic, and it makes the artist look more comfortable than ever before in exploring his preferred sounds.
Less avant-garde than he was in his approach to Talking Heads, Demme nonetheless films the show with his usual élan. Focused on a colossal spectacle, Demme incorporates the audience more than in any of his other concert movies, attuned to both the giant crowd and the way that the constant flashes of cell phone cams add to the overwhelming sensory experience. The dizzying displays of the actual show are most in evidence in the elaborate laser choreography of “Only When I Walk Away,” which Demme films almost as a tech noir, homing in on the shadowed bodies of the band as streaks of neon green shimmer overhead.
But the best shot comes near the end of the film during set closer “Mirrors.” As the band’s steady power ballad crescendo comes to a head, the floor suddenly drops out of their playing to let the audience sing the lyrics, and the camera stays on Timberlake as the intensity of the crowd response gets to him and he suddenly grabs the sides of his head as a massive smile of joy, gratitude and disbelief breaks out over his face and tears pool in his eyes. Timberlake has spent the majority of his life in showbiz and has been an international star since he was a teenager, but in this moment he looks as if fame had only just found him and the magnitude of his stardom only just occurred to him. It is the culminating image of Demme’s most optimistic work, perhaps the single most blissful moment in a filmography dotted with humanist connections, a fitting conclusion for a man whose career ended too soon.