To Capture His Pop Spectacle, Timberlake Turns To Demme

Justin Timberlake’s desire to make a concert film could be traced directly back to when he saw Jonathan Demme’s iconic 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.”

“There’s just no other concert film like it,” Timberlake said in a recent interview. “It changed the way I saw concerts from then on out.”

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Toronto International Film Festival.

When the pop star-actor met with Demme to discuss a script, Timberlake couldn’t help gushing – to an embarrassing degree, he says – to the director. Though that project never materialized, Timberlake thought of Demme immediately when the idea of making a film from his 2013-2015 “20/20 Experience” world tour came up. “It wasn’t about him being the first choice,” says Timberlake. “He was the only choice.”

With a quick phone call to Demme, it was a done deal.

“It was the easiest. ‘Stop Making Sense’ was pretty easy too, but that time I had to call David Byrne and spend half an hour convincing him to make the movie,” Demme said with a chuckle in a separate interview. “I’ve been obsessed with working with Justin in a film ever since I saw him in ‘The Social Network.’ And then suddenly I get to do a movie where he’s in almost every shot.”

The film, “Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids,” hits Netflix on Wednesday, lending the streaming platform a megawatt dose of Timberlake’s fluid, seemingly effortless stardom. He has touted it as an opportunity to “Timberlake and Chill.”

With Demme’s cameras trained squarely on the singer, the film captures the wide range of Timberlake, whose silky-smooth performance is like a 21st century hybrid of Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. Both are repeatedly referenced throughout Timberlake’s performance. The setting (the MGM Grand in Las Vegas) and attire (Tom Ford tuxedoes) is pure Sinatra, while the dance moves and harmonies (“Human Nature” is covered) owe plenty to Jackson.

“It’s a concert film but it’s the most personal film I’ve made about creating music,” says Timberlake, whose 2013 20/20 Experience album was his first in seven years. “It was a really great time for me in my career and what was happening in my life.”

“Stop Making Sense” chronicled the steady swell of Byrne’s funk extravaganza: It begins with him on a bare stage with an acoustic guitar and builds to a teaming ensemble and Byrne in an oversized suit. But “Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids” is the full force of a pop spectacle, with giant screens, laser lights, backup dancers and a moving platform.

It’s a new groove for Demme, a filmmaker who moves between fiction films (“The Silence of the Lambs,” ‘‘Philadelphia,” ‘‘Rachel Getting Married”) and performance documentaries (“Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”). And the bigger, arena-sized concert meant a larger production for him, too.

“I used far more cameras than I’ve used before,” Demme says. “We had 14 operated cameras. We had a crane stuck up on the ceiling operated by handles from somebody down on the floor. And we had six or eight stationary cameras put in special little spots to capture maybe one verse of a song.”

Two cameras remained on Timberlake throughout: one giving Demme a close-up for every single moment, the other a head-to-toe shot. But that’s only the foundation of Demme’s approach. From there, he mixes in closely observed footage that captures the interplay of musicians and dancers, and the close-knit family of performers.

Timberlake’s Vegas shows came after 14 months of touring and more than 130 shows. For him, the movie is about the vast number of people that created the entire experience.

“When you got down to it, this tour, more than any other tour, was such a shared experience for me with the people on stage and the people off stage,” Timberlake says. “I changed the title of the movie to ‘and the Tennessee Kids.’ Originally I just wanted to call it “JT and the Tennessee Kids.” Then Netflix purchases it and they’re like ‘We have to say ‘Justin Timberlake.’“ And I’m like, ‘We do?’“