Like all sensible people, Justin Timberlake is a fan of Stop Making Sense. Like everyone who’s seen The Social Network (among other things), Jonathan Demme is a fan of Justin Timberlake. The stars thus aligned, and the two collaborated on a documentary capturing the final performance of Timberlake’s two-year 20/20 Experience World Tour in early 2015. With cameras rolling, Timberlake and his band, the Tennessee Kids, take to the stage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena before tens of thousands of wailing fans. What follows is an hour and a half of both musical and cinematic delight that only an ardent Timberlake hater could resist.
This doc could be a single still shot of the concert and remain remarkably mesmerizing. Timberlake is an adroit performer, the kind who seemingly devotes the entirety of his vocals and physicality to letting everyone in the audience know that he would like nothing more than to make love to them. He and his backup dancers demonstrate better footwork than anyone in this year’s musical favorite La La Land, to boot. The production itself is calculated for maximum showmanship, incorporating grand light displays and, in one wow moment, a section of the stage lifting into the air and hovering over the audience.
Of course, the movie is by no means a still shot. Demme, a veteran of concert docs, takes particular pleasure in zeroing in on the small details in the performances, both from Timberlake and from the Tennessee Kids (they don’t share equal billing in the title for nothing; every member gets their own introductory title card, and the frame always makes room for them or finds time to give each one a moment of their own). The scale of the movie can shift from intimate to massive with a snap of the finger: sometimes the viewer feels a dizzying sense of being part of the crowd, and at other times they may feel like Timberlake is singing solely to them. Sometimes it can feel like both, like when the camera positions Timberlake to look like an actual giant looming against the backdrop of the audience. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is a proud addition to the ranks of great concert films (and one of the funnest movies of this year’s Toronto Film Festival).