Few concert films capture the excitement of being in the audience. "Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids" does one better by being just as lively in its own right as its star's show.
Director Jonathan Demme is best known for his narrative films ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Something Wild," "Rachel Getting Married"), but he's also the preeminent director of live performances on film, whether it's a one-man stage show ("Swimming to Cambodia"), an intimate concert ("Neil Young: Heart of Gold," "Storefront Hitchcock") or an elaborately conceived musical celebration (the Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense," arguably the greatest rock 'n' roll film ever made). There's no one better, then, to capture the final shows of Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience" tour, a highly choreographed star show where the star knows when to go center stage and when to share the spotlight (and the camera). It's not just the best concert film in ages — it's one of the best-directed, most ebullient film experiences of the year (even if it's only on Netflix).
Timberlake is, on his own, a natural showman, armed with a precise sense of movement, a one in a million falsetto, and more than a handful of first-rate pop songs. He's also heading a spectacularly produced stage show, one with an opening (set to "Pusher Love Girl") that turns him from monolithic shadow on the wall to superstar by the spotlight in an instant. He's also capable of transitioning from a loose moment — nodding and bobbing, taking in the crowd's response before the music starts, as if to ask the crowd, "Are you ready?" — to a smooth Classic Hollywood lover's pose, asking if "I can get a light?"
What elevates "Tennessee Kids" above a filmed version of a great concert, however, is Demme's camera, which is as responsive to movement and interaction between Timberlake, his band and the crowd as most shows are staid and unimaginative. In the opening number alone, Demme has an innate sense of when to pull the camera back and showcase the band rising from below the stage to above, where to place a camera to capture a small detail like the microphone rising to meet Timberlake and frame it just below a light, as if heaven is shining from where the music's coming from.
Before the show starts, Demme opens the film with brief introductions by all of the stagehands, backup dancers and musicians who support Timberlake's show. The message is clear: however important the star is, nothing happens without dozens of talented people making their own contributions. That generous philosophy carries over to the concert, which will stay focused on tiny moments from supporting players that almost certainly won't get picked up on by those in the concert hall but have an effect on the overall energy on the show and the film. Demme stays trained on the pianist during a solo in "My Love" while Timberlake, barely perceptible in the background of the frame on the other end of the stage, waits for the moment to pass. The camera pans across a row of musicians during "Rock Your Body," only to reach the end of the line just as Timberlake walks into the frame. That's a sense of movement, and of back-and-forth between collaborators onstage and off, that can't be faked.
Like "Stop Making Sense" before it, "Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids" is a perfect marriage of performer and filmmaker, of live experience and filmed entertainment. There's an implied and expressed love of music, of artists, and of people that's outright humane, a view of performance as utopia that's difficult to leave (fittingly, the film cuts from a tearful Timberlake ending his show with a view of stagehands setting up the stage before the concert, a thanks to the too-often-unthanked). The good news, then, is that whether you were there or not, and whether the film's playing for the first time or the 50th, "SexyBack" still bangs.
"Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids" is now streaming on Netflix.