Dawn Porter isn’t known for pop culture docs. Instead, the filmmaker’s career is dotted with more political fare like “Gideon’s Army” and “Spies of Mississippi.” Her break from that box, however, is glorious. With music icon Luther Vandross as her muse she hits it out of the park with her Sundance premiere of “Luther: Never Too Much.”
Vandross, a Bronx native raised in a single-mother household, rose to stardom in the 1980s, garnering 33 Grammy nominations and eight Grammy wins. He also won seven American Music Awards as favorite soul/R&B male artist. In all, he’s sold over 50 million records worldwide and received 11 consecutive platinum albums. Although he passed away nearly 20 years ago in 2005, at the age of 54, his legacy lives on. What “Luther” shows is why.
Produced, in part by Jamie Foxx, with longtime producing partner and frequent Sundance contributor Datari Turner, “Luther” gets in the groove quickly with a behind-the-scenes look at Vandross rehearsing and performing his cover of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” That song serves as a metaphor of sorts as it tracks Vandross’ entry into the music industry, as well as the heights he would rise to.
Greatly influenced by Black female singers and groups like The Supremes, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, Vandross fell in love with music at an early age. Guided by that love, he wrangled a group of friends early in life in Fonzi Thornton, Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar who walked with him throughout his career and tell his story here. What they share is a man who was destined for the accolades he’d later receive, sharing insights from his childhood that will dazzle his most fervent fans.
Beginning with several youth groups to big scores on “Sesame Street” and recognition by David Bowie, who helped boost his career, Vandross’ talent is undeniable, helping him excel in the entertainment industry despite not meeting the superficial requirements of being thin. Even before he was a household name, his many jingles for the likes of Miller Beer and Juicy Fruit were familiar ditties.
A consummate performer and student of the craft, Vandross did it all, from writing, arranging and singing his songs to designing tour costumes for himself and his background singers. He studied and loved every single aspect of his career. Most of “Luther” details his greatest vocal moments on such songs as the title song “Never Too Much,” “Bad Boy Having A Party,” “Give Me the Reason,” “Here and Now,” “Any Love,” and many more.
The backstory behind his cover of The Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” proves his ability to Luther-ify any song, while his cover of idol Dionne Warwick’s version of “A House Is Not a Home” is shared in the doc with a stunning performance of it during an NAACP tribute to Warwick where she’s caught wiping away a tear. He also penned his other idol, Aretha Franklin’s, top-charting hit “Jump To It,” which served as a personal triumph for him. So does his pop breakthrough with his most personal and prized song, “Dance With My Father,” about his father who died when Vandross was just eight.
“Luther” keeps the focus largely on his music, with Warwick and Foxx joined by other big names, including music luminaries Mariah Carey, Niles Rodgers and Valerie Simpson, who sing his praises. His career trajectory, it notes, was cut down by racist music industry practices of blocking Black singers from the pop realm. Also addressed is the role his weight played throughout his career, especially in terms of his mental and physical health. Questions around his sexuality are begrudgingly acknowledged, but will surely be the doc’s greatest point of criticism.
What Porter has crafted here, however, is sure to rise above most criticism. The archival footage is top notch as it documents Vandross’ early work in little-known groups, on “Sesame Street,” in studio sessions with Bowie for the album “Young Americans,” late night appearances with Arsenio Hall, daytime interviews with Oprah Winfrey, and footage of his most popular jingles. Porter’s collaging of Vandross’ many performances of some of his most popular songs underscores how consistently flawless and precise he was as a live performer.
Only love is acceptable in the fan-pleasing “Luther.” Packing the doc with Vandross’ music and his closest circle—from longtime collaborators bass player Marcus Miller, musical director Nat Adderly, Jr., background singers Lisa Fischer and Ava Cherry, niece Seveda Williams, and the aforementioned lifelong friends Alomar, Clark and Thornton, ensure that his praises are sung. Perhaps the only hint of real drama comes from songwriter Richard Marx, who collaborated with Vandross on many songs, including his classic “Dance With My Father,” as he calls out those like Patti LaBelle as being disloyal for publicly addressing Vandross’ sexuality.
Ultimately, “Luther: Never Too Much” will have fans dancing in their seats, playing karaoke to some of his best slow songs, or in the mood for love, which is how his friends, family, and Porter want him to be remembered most.
“Luther: Never Too Much” is a sales title at Sundance.
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