In the years since Jonathan Demme refined the art of rock documentaries and made Talking Heads frontman David Byrne swing-dance with a lamp in Stop Making Sense, he’s teamed with Neil Young for a trilogy of performance films, done some scattered music video work, and helmed a little-seen doc with Italian singer-songwriter Enzo Avitabile. Now his turned his lens on another iconic performer: Justin Timberlake. And no, he did not put him in a giant, baggy white suit.
His latest concert movie, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, is a chronicle of the spectacular 20/20 Experience Tour’s final stop in Las Vegas. (It’ll be available to stream on Netflix starting October 12th.) The morning after the film premiered to an auditorium packed with screaming JT fans at the Toronto International Film Festival, Demme sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss shooting his biggest concert film yet, how he’s mourning Prince and Bowie, and the Stop Making Sense parody nobody bothered to tell him about.
How did you and Justin Timberlake first come into one another’s orbits?
I was blown away by him in The Social Network — I just thought he arrived in that movie like a thrilling hurricane of a character. Through representatives, I was able to hang out with him one afternoon. I really wanted to work with him, and from that time on, I was looking for a script that’d be right for him. About two years ago, he called me, saying that he was on this tour and would be completing it soon in Las Vegas. He liked Stop Making Sense a lot and he wondered if I’d come take a look at his show, see if it lent itself to becoming a movie.
Prior to this, were you a fan of his music?
I really met Justin’s music when I came on board. I realized that I did like a lot of his songs, without even knowing what his songs were. I was like, “Oh, that ‘Mirrors’ song, I love that!'”
Then what do you think makes him distinct from other musicians working today?
I often wonder how other people perceive him. Does everyone realize what a magnificent voice he has? That he has an incredible range, without being show-offy? And what he cooks up with that amazing band of his, the Tennessee Kids, is just unbeatable.
In terms of scale, the 20/20 Experience is a much larger operation than the Stop Making Sense show or the Neil Young concerts. What were the challenges of capturing something this big?
All work is challenging. But I guess the one thing that was quite challenging — at one point during the show, a portion of the stage travels through the room, and I thought ‘How the hell are we going to tell that little story?’ I knew what shots I wanted for all the songs, all the numbers, but when the stage moves, I wanted it to be something special. I wanted it to be worthy of all the work Justin and his team had put into the show.
How would you describe your approach to this material, and how it differs from past concert documentaries you’ve worked on?
We wanted to bring some ‘That’s Entertainment!’ style to the way we shot it. I love song-and-dance performances. I’ve always wanted to make a musical, and this was my chance to do that. And starring Justin Timberlake, at that.
We think of concerts as a single, immutable thing, but as the filmmaker, you still exert influence over how the show is seen onscreen. To what extent do you feel you control the shape of the finished product?
Cinematically, yes, I have total control. Justin had a lot of faith in our team, and we blended perfectly when it was time to film it. Then in the cutting room, we had to take out a lot — it’s a long show. I removed lots of good songs in pursuit of what I’d call cinematic momentum, and a desire to create an emotional journey. I can’t explain it to you, it’s kind of intuitive, but Justin’s emotional journey guides the film. All the people onstage really love each other, and knowing that this was the last time they’d be able to do it … that got Justin really emotional. To me, it’s both a performance film but also a portrait of an artist at a certain moment in the arc of his career.
The title’s in two parts — it’s Justin and the Tennessee Kids. A lot of attention is paid to his band, just like in Stop Making Sense.
When you’re filming, if you can’t capture the relationships and interplay, that magical thing that transpires between musicians during a performance, then you’re not going to have a deeply interesting film. It’s vital. We chose our camera angles on the basis of linking and unifying the disparate band members.
How many cameras did you have going?
We had fourteen operated cameras, and six unoperated lock-off cameras. I wanted to leave nothing to chance this time. I didn’t want to be saying, “I wish I had … ” There’s a moment in “Mirrors,” when he comes running up into this lovely closeup and sings a verse. You know we had to have the camera to capture the physics of that.
The last time I saw Stop Making Sense, it was projected onto the wall of a warehouse and everyone was dancing. Do you endorse that as a way of interacting with concert films as opposed to a more traditional screening?
Oh yeah. Definitely, I think that’s wonderful. Last night [at the premiere], I saw people scattered around the audience who were rocking out in a seated position. If you feel like it, absolutely, that’s what you should do. When we finished Stop Making Sense, we went right to the San Francisco Film Festival for the world premiere, and people swarmed the stage and started dancing before the first song was even finished. Then we went to Florence for their festival, and my dear friend Bernardo Bertolucci was in town. We sat together for the screening, an outdoor projection situation, and the same thing happened. “Psycho Killer” starts cooking up, and Bernardo goes, “Oh my god, this is my fantasy, to have people dancing to my film. But in my fantasy, they’re dancing to the cinema!”
I don’t think anything can compete with live performance. A great play, great performances, you’re there in the room breathing the same air — shit, you can’t beat it. But we strive to provide the most exciting interpretation of that feeling, as filmmakers. We can provide a roving best seat in the house. We can linger on closeups. We can follow the dynamics of the music. I love shooting music.
Will bringing this to Netflix help get folks dancing in their living rooms, then?
I’m all for streaming, and I do think it’s thrilling that a gazillion people can see our film the day it drops. On the other hand, I’m a fierce believer of the theatergoing experience. My hope would be that films can be enjoyed in both ways, that there’s room for both.
“When we finished Stop Making Sense, we went right to the San Francisco Film Festival for the world premiere, and people swarmed the stage and started dancing before the first song was even finished.”
The new picture is dedicated to Prince. What does his music mean to you?
I love Prince, and so does Justin. [The dedication] was his idea. He’s got many influences that he’s happy to acknowledge, but none is as great as Prince. We wanted to celebrate him. Any time anyone who’s been so generous with their art dies, it’s always very sad. Hard to believe, too.
Him and Bowie — it’s been a rough year.
In my house, we’ve still got the Bowie picture that we put up when we heard the news, Prince too. Our little shrines.
Do you still go to a lot of concerts?
I still go out, but not a lot. If I go to see music, it’s usually to the Blue Note, jazz clubs, things like that. When I travel, I find out where the jazz clubs are. Like in La La Land, which I saw here. You can just tell that the filmmakers are in love with music, in love with dance, and in love with love. The palette that they resurrected there, it makes me wonder, “Was it ever really this beautiful?”
So Documentary Now! is doing a parody of Stop Making Sense this season called “Final Transmission.” You’ve heard about this, I take it?
[Laughs] No, I haven’t!
Really? It’s Bill Hader and Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live, doing parodies of classic documentaries.
Wow, that sounds so cool! But hell yeah, I have to see that.
You should hit them up. They owe you a screener at the very least.
I love those guys. Bill Hader, he’s turned out to be such a great actor in recent years, I really like him. But I’ve gotta check that out, I want to see all of them.
Going back to your concert docs, between your work with Neil Young and Justin Timberlake and the Talking Heads, there’s a real sense of showmanship connecting them all. For genres of music that are oriented less around the act of performance than the spectacle of the show — electronic music, for one — do you believe there’s a good documentary to be made out of that as well?
I do think that’s very possible. It comes down to two things: Whoever’s doing the work of making the music, they have to have a cinematic quality. Like I said about Neil Young, “The camera loves him.” I wouldn’t say showmanship, exactly, but that the people creating the music are interesting characters. And second, that their experience makes for an interesting, if only interior, journey for us to watch. We’ve only started to scratch the surface of what can be done with performance films. I’d love to see them get bolder and bolder.
The first music thing I did after Stop Making Sense back in 1984 was New Order’s first video, for “The Perfect Kiss.” My thing in the video days was basically doing videos live, I didn’t want to do a bunch of lip-sync. We did “Perfect Kiss,” and because most folks didn’t know what the members of [the band] looked like, I wanted to do it all in closeup, all ten minutes, with beautiful lighting. We got Henri Alekan, one of the great cinematographer and lighting designers of all time. They ended up playing it eight times, one take with focus on the faces, once with focus on the hands, and so on. And so I found myself thinking when I saw Gary Clark Jr. last week with his brilliant band, “What if there was a movie with a ‘Perfect Kiss’ kind of approach, where we spend a lot of time on their faces? What will we see as the film goes in in terms of what their experience is?” That’s just one of a million possible ways.
Say you can shoot a concert documentary with any musician or group, dead or alive. Who would it be?
I tried very hard many years ago to find financing to do a concert film with Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, he’s a Nigerian musician. I’ve been thinking about him again lately. That would be one hell of a movie.
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