[Note: This is a re-post of my Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now streaming on Netflix.]
I like Justin Timberlake. Sure it may be cool to not like Justin Timberlake—eww he was in a boy band; eww he makes pop music; eww he thinks he’s such a good dancer. But I unabashedly do. He’s a crazy talented human being! There’s an undeniable charisma about Timberlake, and he’s so good at so many things it’s almost unfair. He can sing, dance, play instruments, and as seen in The Social Network, he’s even a pretty good actor. What Timberlake most excels at is entertaining, which makes him the perfect subject for a concert documentary. However, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is not just any concert doc. It’s an achingly joyous film that is brilliantly conceived and directed by Jonathan Demme. Yes, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind The Silence of the Lambs spearheads this Justin Timberlake concert documentary.
Demme actually isn’t too strange of a choice for Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. He’s responsible for crafting one of the best concert documentaries of all time with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, and it’s precisely his work on that movie that led Timberlake to seek out his talents to chronicle the final two nights of his The 20/20 Experience tour. The result is something truly special; a film that has no right being this damn good.
The film opens by showing Timberlake arriving at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he’ll be performing later that night. We briefly see Timberlake enter his dressing room and crack a joke, but then Demme turns his focus to the Tennessee Kids. We’re introduced to the dancers, the backup singers, the drummer, the guitarists, the trumpeter, etc. And then the concert begins, and for the next 80 minutes or so we simply watch a Justin Timberlake concert.
By opening the film on the Tennessee Kids, Demme ensures that we’re familiar with these people before digging into the music. It builds a connection to the faces we didn’t instantly recognize, and it’s all in service of making Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids a surprisingly intimate experience despite the fact that the band is playing to a massive crowd.
Every camera move is flawless. Demme knows how to capture each song in a way that highlights the best aspects of the performance, and he does it so well that you often forget there’s a camera there—it feels as though they’re performing right in front of your eyes. Demme’s focus on the faces at key points brings a tremendous humanity to the picture that would have been lost with your simple quick-cut, wide-angle concert doc. This is a film, and it’s a great one.
Timberlake’s set list runs through many of his biggest hits, from “Like I Love You” to “Sexyback” to “Suit & Tie”, along with a number of deeper cuts from his discography. He even throws in a couple of covers, including an outstanding rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” that leads directly into “What Goes Around”. If you’re a fan of Timberlake’s music, you’ll no doubt find plenty to enjoy.
But it’s Demme who’s the real star here, the invisible man behind the camera who captures Timberlake’s passion, talent, and verve with such intense humanity. You feel a connection with Timberlake throughout the film, and in the realm of concert documentaries that’s incredibly difficult to do. Moreover, The Tennessee Kids don’t come off as supporting players or also-rans—they’re an integral part of Timberlake’s show, and through Demme’s lens are an integral part of this film as well.
I do wonder if the film will have the same impact on the small screen, since it’s being released on Netflix. I happened to see it on an IMAX-sized screen with blasting sound, which no doubt added to the overall experience. Hopefully that translates to living rooms across the globe. A word of advice: turn the volume up LOUD.
In less talented hands this could have been one long promo for Justin Timberlake: The Brand. In the hands of Demme, it’s pure art. Timberlake is the consummate entertainer, and watching someone as skilled as he up close and personal, doing what he does best, is an absolute joy.
Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is now playing on Netflix in all territories.