Something Wild: A Dialogue About "Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids"

Two critics discuss Jonathan Demme's concert film, which transforms Timberlake's final 2015 tour appearance into a utopic vision of love.
Calum Marsh, Neil Bahadur
If I wrote you a symphony/Just to say what you mean to me (what would you do?)

Justin Timberlake has stated in the past that the lyrics to his song “My Love” represent a humble approach to love itself.  Jonathan Demme’s approach in Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids,  his concert documentary of the final show of Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience tour in 2015, is to take this concept and expand upon it. “Love,” in this concert film, is not between individuals, nor between an individual and a group, but rather is a fully utopic vision within a single, musical space in Las Vegas’s MGM Grand.  Within this space, Timberlake does not perform as much as react: the audience loves him, and he loves them back.  It is Demme’s inspiration to take this premise and run with it, that everybody is a part of the show.  In this sense, perhaps it’s a film about reciprocal affection.  But maybe there’s more. It’s a film about reciprocal affection as the basis of community: 83 minutes of a paradise achieved through the love of music. reflect me, I love that about you..

NEIL BAHADUR:  On my initial viewing of of the film, I was so taken by the way Jonathan Demme organized his shots around the entire performance, not just of Justin Timberlake’s, but of the entire crew: the backing vocalists, the back-up dancers, the trumpet & saxophone players.  The movie even opens through a series of brief interviews with these collaborators!  Even then however, I think I may have allowed that to diminish my full appreciation of the stage show itself - the striking lighting effects throughout the entire performance.  I’m thinking primarily of the beginning of the performance of “Only When I Walk Away,” and Demme is also really to be commended here for how he cuts to a full wide shot of the entire stage - one thing I’ve also noticed is that whenever shots are framed this widely in the direction of the stage, it’s never for the performances but for the lights!  But what I mean to say is that there are real, total aesthetic pleasures to be found in this film, well beyond what I might have noticed initially.  And with that in mind it’s important to recognize that the design of the stage show isn’t Jonathan Demme’s, but one by Timberlake and his team.  Demme is filming only what has already been constructed by Timberlake.  If one is going to call Demme the director of this film, then one has to call Timberlake the director as well. 

It makes me think even more highly of Timberlake!   Because Demme’s cameras are never intrusive, just highly observant. Just as the stage show is already Timberlake’s construction, so too has the musician been able to build (and maintain!) such relationships with his collaborators which makes so many of the film’s shots possible.

CALUM MARSH: You raise an interesting question, Neil: what’s the relationship between the concert and the way Demme shoots it, between form and content? One way to think about it may be in terms of access. Timberlake and his crew have orchestrated the spectacle. But it’s Demme who affords us the view: his camera is panoptic, omniscient, and the vantage it provides is at once more expansive and more intimate than anything we could hope to enjoy live. Take “Pusher Love Girl,” the opening salvo. It begins with one of those full-stage wide shots you mentioned: our man’s alone in the centre of the frame, perfectly miniscule, as this colossal silhouette’s cast against the white-canvas backdrop behind him. Then the lighting changes—a lower-spotlight reaches up and cradles Timberlake’s face from below—and Demme cuts to a medium shot. Suddenly JT fills the screen, bobbing up and down with boyish glee. From grandeur to intimacy in an instant! It’s really something. And to me that’s director and star in harmony.  

BAHADUR: Those are both great points: the way Demme shoots the concert is as simple as a question of form and content.  Looking back at these two shots which open “Pusher Love Girl,” it’s interesting as well that the white-canvas silhouette is of JT’s design; that is to say, this shift from grandeur to intimacy appears part of the live show’s design as well.  And then this second shot (while still in medium comparatively to this previous wide) is actually zooming in - as you say JT is filling the screen - this bobbing up and’s spontaneous!  So this is quite interesting to me.  Demme’s purpose is both to observe and build on what Timberlake already has; these cameras only serve to serve the performer(s).  But there’s an added effect, I think, with the zoom.  We wouldn’t be able to enjoy or experience this live at the concert!  The lighting change already has the effect of presenting two separate shots, while the zoom has the effect of being a third.  So then if we’re to take these as three separate shots:  Image 1 (silhouette) gives us spectacle, Image 2 gives intimacy.  Of course, all you need for a juxtaposition is two shots.  So Demme’s third is really something of an addendum.  This zoom combined with Timberlake’s own bouncing adds an additional dynamic.  With the zoom, I think Demme is building on the shift from grandeur to intimacy with a similar shift from design to spontaneity.

MARSH: I like this idea, that Demme is building on what Timberlake already has — that the film is meant to serve his design. Would that make Demme himself an honorary Tennessee Kid?

Of course, the film is if nothing else an affirmation of teamwork and camaraderie. Demme lingers on backing vocalists mid-chorus, on drummers in riotous swing, on dancers busting moves. The contribution of each is humbly acknowledged, even celebrated, and what’s more they get to look cool: think of the pianist who hammers out an arpeggio with no accompaniment, held for a minute or two in affectionate close-up at the beginning of “My Love,” or the guitarist who tears into the solo at the end of the same song, shot from a low angle that for a moment redirects all attention away from JT and makes him the star. Timberlake may be the center of attention—he is, after all, the reason 17,000 people have descended upon the MGM Grand this evening—but he can’t help but share the love. He’s modest, deferential, bursting with gratitude. And so naturally Demme is too.  

BAHADUR: This reminds me of something you wrote in your initial review: “If this is portraiture, it’s of Timberlake as the world’s nicest guy.”  And you also say something about the empathetic eye of the camera, because I don’t think this effect is necessarily possible if the camera is simply attuned to Timberlake’s performance.  There is so much movement, a constant wandering from face to face. In fact, by the time we get to “Drink You Away,” the camera is barely even on Timberlake himself.  Furthermore, there’s a  formal freedom that almost seems “unprofessional,” at times, such as an unusually shaky handheld shot of the entire band during the short performance of “Holy Grail.” I found this moment actually a bit jolting, yet at the same time it was perfectly in-tune with the relaxed nature of the film.  That’s really a shock, how casual this film seems even with the spectacle of a full stage performance.  But I don’t think Demme necessarily shies away from this either; in a way, it’s as though Demme himself has never been to a contemporary pop concert by a megastar, and he’s completely thrilled by all the visual opportunities enabled by it.  He captures an abstraction within the performance’s visual design which otherwise one at the performance itself might take for granted.  But there is a real embrace of what the spectator there can experience as well.  These combinations often feel like like intimacy is being given the weight usually reserved for myths.

Moving forward from this, what do you think of how the film captures the design of the stage performance itself?

MARSH: I think the object of most stage shows of this scale is simply to will a sense of intimacy into being, you know? One person has to seem accessible to tens of thousands: everybody, from the front row up to the nosebleeds, wants to feel that they’re really in the presence of the star they paid a great deal of money to see. So when we talk about design I think what we’re talking about mainly is amplification and magnification—the amplification and magnification of JT. You mentioned “Only When I Walk Away” already, and that’s an arresting example: Timberlake’s face is blown up and projected rather menacingly across an enormous screen behind him, like the diabolical despot in that old Ridley Scott Macintosh commercial. Nary a seat in the house will find that distant. You touched upon on the lighting—that dazzling viridescent laser show, holy mackerel!—and how Demme goes wide to sop it all up, in a way that’s almost deferential. It’s as if he’s keen to impress upon the viewer how extraordinary this whole thing is, as a work of world-class choreography and engineering and design. Would you call it self-effacing filmmaking in that respect? He amplifies Timberlake in much the same way the stage show itself does. It’s as if he’s directing our attention to the spectacle and saying, “get a load of this!”

BAHADUR:  Self-effacing is exactly the word I’d use!  It’s reverential towards Timberlake and his creation, yet without ever once appearing hagiographic, as though Demme merely wants to document what he finds exciting.  There’s never once a moment which feels overtly ‘formalist,’ as though drawing attention to one's own work would distract from both the recording and a proper representation of Timberlake and the stage show itself.  Yet, as you say, willing “a sense of intimacy into being” it seems only near the halfway point of the film that Demme begins to open up his focus from the spectacle of the show itself to those around it.  When “Let The Groove Get In” begins, Demme supplements a now-aerial stage with an aerial shot finally revealing the extent of the audience below.  And to me it’s not the shot which reveals that crowd that’s equally as impressive as the stage—it’s that crowd itself.  Following that, we seem to spend even more time with the band-members as in this shot here, one of my favorites of the film:

Timberlake here seems almost an afterthought to the band-members and the audience—the latter are even the most brightly lit articles in the frame!  It’s also during this performance where the audiences singing-along begins to be brought up in the sound-mix.  This is most striking two songs later, in the performance of “What Goes Around Comes Around,” and it’s also very slow and gradual there.  I noticed that when JT makes his first gesture for the audience to join in the singing (“Come on!”), it’s actually the rest of the band that is louder in the sound mix, although it’s clear that they’ve started chanting immediately.  Not that it isn’t effective - perhaps making the voices gradually heighten in the sound mix is the reason why the little moment where JT turns and bobs his head as the audience finishes the song for him so endearing.  It seems that it’s from this point onwards that the audience becomes part of this little utopia.  There’s also a wonderful moment during the performance of “Human Nature” just before, where JT comes into the crowd and shakes the hands of whatever lucky audience member is in his vicinity.  But even then this handshake still a bit distanced on Timberlake’s part, or at least it seems so.  As though the camera can’t get close enough to capture that genuine affinity.  So I’m thinking now this gradual audience mixing is maybe a key choice on Demme’s part: to capture perhaps what is possible in a stage performance but not through what is filmed.  And maybe that’s why the performance of “Mirrors” at the end of the film is so moving. The mix has gotten to the point where Timberlake is barely even audible in his own performance.

MARSH: Well-observed! We begin with the colossal blockbuster spectacle—bright lights, big silhouettes, audience dwarfed by million-dollar extravagance—and conclude with communion, star and crowd in harmony. “Let the Groove Get In” is when the balance most plainly shifts: the elevated plexiglass walkway disengages from the stage proper and floats out over the room, not only bringing Timberlake closer to his fans—he’s performing a few feet over their heads—but also sort of conceding the stage to the band, leaving the Tennessee Kids to take the lead on the music as he springs into a spotlit dance. The shot you mention, with the tuba player and guitarist flanking the screen in the foreground as JT busts a move toward the back of the frame, all of it in crystalline deep focus, really emphasizes this democratic redistribution of attention. The film’s spreading the love, in other words. Keep an eye out, too, for that wonderful moment when the walkway begins to move and the camera ducks beneath and peeks behind: Demme finds a few of the band members back there and lingers among them a while, happy to catch up with JT’s floating platform gimmick later. What an image! These are the people behind the machinery of the show. Demme knows they’re as important as anything or anyone else.

When I say we conclude with communion, I of course mean “Mirrors” too: that grand singalong finale, shot and sound-mixed like a karaoke number for twenty thousand people. By this point the balance has shifted so much that it’s Timberlake who seems dwarfed by the people there to see him rather than the other way around—dwarfed not by extravagance or spectacle but by sheer affection, pure and unyielding. So he becomes the happy child again: the little boy overwhelmed by gratitude, smiling ear to ear and giving an indulgent bow. For a moment he’s Charles Laughton at the end of Ruggles of Red Gap, tearing up at the thought that he’s admired and loved. So earnest, so endearing, maybe so dorky. It’s incredibly moving stuff. 

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