Toronto Film Review: Jonathan Demme Makes Sense of 'Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids'

‘Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids’ (Photo: TIFF)

By Gregg Goldstein, Variety

The logistical considerations involved in filming Justin Timberlake’s January 2015 show at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand must have taken months to sort out. From learning the layout of the massive, hydraulically enhanced stage, to deciphering the choreography of a hyperactive set, to figuring out how to unobtrusively position dozens of cameras to take it all in, Jonathan Demme’s concert film Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids was surely a complex undertaking. Yet Timberlake’s directive to the director was presumably quite simple: Give me my Stop Making Sense.

More than three decades old and still the indisputable gold standard for concert filmmaking, Demme’s own 1984 Talking Heads doc is the obvious stylistic model for this recent Netflix acquisition. While this considerably less adventurous rock-doc couldn’t possibly hope to compare, Demme proves he’s still a wily master of the craft, and the director’s work here makes this more than just a fans-only proposition.

Related: Toronto Facetime: Jonathan Demme on JT, and Not Retiring

Whereas Stop Making Sense was an exercise in addition — starting with a bare stage and continually introducing new elements (and suit jackets) throughout the show — the guiding concept of Justin Timberlake is one of geometrical subdivision. Frequently framing his shots with the tuxedoed Timberlake dead-center, Demme takes in the kaleidoscopic distractions of a modern arena pop show without letting them overwhelm the star. Whether shooting from the rear of the stage, with Timberlake’s back framed by his 16-piece band arranged in perfectly symmetrical rows, using the hexagonal honeycomb backdrop as a sort of grid for tracking movement, or playing with space as the front chunk of the stage detaches and hovers over the audience, the director consistently finds ways to make the scope of the spectacle comprehensible by breaking it down into component parts. The end-credits even show the construction of the stage, like a giant mass of Tetris blocks falling into place piece-by-piece.

Timberlake’s initial rise to fame as a member of NSYNC coincided with the height of MTV’s TRL — which put an emphasis on hysterical fans, and chopped live performances up into hyperactive slurry — so it’s refreshing to see him captured here in extremely long, unbroken shots, with glimpses of the audience and backstage goofing kept to a bare minimum. The performance rewards this sort of focus: After years in the business, Timberlake has developed smart instincts about how to ration out his bits of dancing and razzle-dazzle throughout the show without compromising his voice, and his band (dubbed the Tennessee Kids) is piano-wire-tight throughout.

Perhaps even a little too tight. The concert captured here is the last one on Timberlake’s two-year tour in support of his twin 2013 releases, The 20/20 Experience and The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2, and the band’s impulse to mix up the material and show off its chops sometimes prevents the music from fully breathing. Especially in the early going, where each song amorphously segues into the next and R&B beats are continually giving way to horn flourishes and crashes of heavy metal guitar, the ratio of tease-to-payoff can be a bit skewed.

Related: Toronto: Justin Timberlake Concert Film Bought by Netflix

But when the music and the visuals click, they really take off. The closing one-two punch of “SexyBack” and “Mirrors” is a killer; “What Goes Around…” lets Timberlake show off some solid guitar-playing; and the extended, atmospheric coda to “LoveStoned” gets an appropriately hallucinatory treatment, captured in a single two-minute wide shot with Timberlake singing in front of a scrolling, Tron-inspired video backdrop. The condensed setlist mostly hits the right notes — keeping portions of covers like Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” — though occasional bits of fluff remain: Timberlake’s attempt to nod to his Tennessee roots on “Drink You Away” is admirable, but credible country-blues remains a bridge too far for him.

The level of technical accomplishment here is top-notch, from the crystal-clean sound work to the vivid, deep lensing. But as you’d expect, Demme’s unerring understanding of where to put the cameras ties everything together. He’s always positioned to capture the rare moments of spontaneity in this otherwise clockwork show, from Timberlake pacing cagily on a riser under the stage, to the restorative mid-set tequila shot he accepts from his longtime producer Timbaland. He’s also there when Timberlake’s oblong, broad-shouldered shadow is projected two stories high across the back of the stage, providing a callback to a key moment in the director’s earlier work that’s too obvious to resist.

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter

Justin Timberlake isn’t much of a music fan in ‘Trolls’: Watch a clip: