To witness Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, which captures the final performance of Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, is to be in pure bliss. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Jonathan Demme’s history as one of the premier documenters of musical performance, though his previous subjects, like the Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense), Neil Young (Neil Young: Heart of Gold), and Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock), often tended toward niche more than mainstream embrace. So what happens when the director trains his uniquely empathetic eye on a bona-fide megastar? He finds, happily, the potent heart and soul underneath all the rehearsed glitz and glamor.
The concert is, of course, the main attraction. But Demme brilliantly bookends the performance with choice behind-the-scenes footage of the multiethnic backup musicians and stage handlers warming up and piecing together the massive breakaway stage on which the show takes place. In a Demme film, the ensemble is as important as the headliner, and there are few filmmakers who can so fully capture a person with a single, well-chosen shot. Timberlake’s crew is enormous, and though you may not remember all of their names, Demme makes sure you remember their faces, so that when they appear alongside Timberlake, there’s a pleasing and profound flicker of recognition.
There are plenty of other humanizing factors as well, like the way the camera focuses intently on Timberlake pacing back and forth beneath the stage before his cheekily gaudy entrance. Or how the beads of perspiration on the musicians’ foreheads glisten and grow as they bang out the hyped-up electro-pop beats in which Timberlake specializes. The star himself knows all too well that his celebrity springs from and is sustained by the very individualized mass of people who surround him. There’s a gleeful, gorgeous moment when the stage is rising out at the audience, carrying Timberlake toward them like a sultan to his subjects. Yet Demme’s camera doesn’t go forward, but back—beneath to the hydraulics lifting the proscenium, from behind which appear the accompanying musicians, emerging like cogs from the machine.
Timberlake is, to some degree, a manufactured performer—the generic boy-bander made big. His falsetto vocal stylings never quite hit with the power you’d like (they’re a bit too calculated), though he certainly demonstrates an earnest, eager-to-please aptitude on the piano and guitar, the latter during an irresistible rendition of “What Goes Around…” He also cuts several delightful dance moves—notably, of course, during “SexyBack,” in which he preens across the stage with comical I-know-you-want-it arrogance. (The ever-amiable Demme has referred to his subject as “a funky Fred Astaire.”)
Is the music, finally, beside the point? That’s sure to differ from viewer to viewer, though Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn pack every frame of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids with such robust and resonant visual splendor that it’s likely even Timberlake agnostics will find something to latch onto. A key image, captured from the rear of the stage, shows Timberlake dancing in the distance while, in the foreground, two musicians energetically prance around with their instruments, as if deep in a rhythmic conversation all their own. It takes a village to make a pop superstar, and it’s a beautiful thing that this particular pop superstar acknowledges that.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.