Wednesday 21 August 2019

A standing ovation for the concert film

Tour de force: Timberlake at the première of his concert film, which was made by The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme
Tour de force: Timberlake at the première of his concert film, which was made by The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme

On the face of it, Hannibal Lecter and Justin Timberlake have precious little in common. But the man who brought the fearsome killer and cannibal to the big screen in The Silence of the Lambs has worked his magic again on a movie that illustrates why singer and occasional actor Timberlake is arguably the greatest pop star of his generation.

Jonathan Demme's forthcoming concert film, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, is unlikely to grasp the Zeitgeist in the way his Anthony Hopkins-Jodie Foster vehicle did a quarter of a century ago, but it will comfortably take its place in the annals of superb concert films.

Demme, himself, is something of a master in the genre, having captured Talking Heads at the very peak of their powers in his 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. It remains a stunning work of art in its own right and it illustrated just how magnetic David Byrne was - and is - when he finds himself on stage.

The film's influence lives on and there were even echoes of it in an excellent R.E.M. on-the-road documentary, aptly titled Tourfilm, which captured them hitting the big-time on the 1989 Green tour. The white suit sported by Michael Stipe recalled the famous baggy one worn by Byrne in Demme's movie.

There's a real art to making music come alive on film and Demme's concert documentaries - including a trio centred on Neil Young - largely leave the extraneous stuff to one side and focus on capturing the music and stage performance as perfectly as possible.

It's the same story with his Timberlake project. The object is to bring one of the most lucrative tours of the past decade to life and by choosing to film the last few nights of the tour in Las Vegas's MGM Grand Garden Arena, he captures a pop singer at the peak of his powers.

This 20/20 Experience tour called to Dublin in July 2013 and Timberlake was in exceptional form at that open-air show in the Phoenix Park. His large cast of supporting musicians - the Tennessee Kids - helped give a Technicolor feel to Timberlake's sophisticated, show-stopping pop tunes. But impressive as that gig was, I couldn't help but feel at the time that it would have been so much better indoors. Demme's film demonstrates that an enormadrome like the MGM Grand is the perfect environment for such fare, largely culled from his three solo albums, Justified, FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience.

Demme isn't the only Oscar-winning director who's turned his hand at capturing musicians doing what they do best. Martin Scorsese is responsible for arguably the greatest concert film of all time, The Last Waltz, which captured The Band playing what was billed as a "farewell concert appearance" at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, in November 1976.

Not only does Scorsese's film give a sense of what stunning musicians Danko, Helm, Hudson, Manuel and Robertson were in the mid-1970s, but the film is illuminated by the contributions of a starry list of guest musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters.

It has its critics though, including the esteemed rock writer Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune. Writing in 2002 on the occasion of The Last Waltz being made available on DVD for the first time, he noted the film, for all its merits, was "a monument to self-importance that virtually excludes the audience". Any lover of Scorsese's films will be aware of the huge stock he places on the Rolling Stones and one of their most emblematic songs, 'Gimmie Shelter', which has appeared on the soundtrack of at least three of his films - Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. It was little surprise, then, when he finally got around to making a Stones concert film, Shine a Light - released in 2008 - which captured the aging rockers in the comparatively intimate surrounds of New York's Beacon Theatre. And while it was a long way off the band's heyday, Scorsese still manages to show why Jagger and Richards, in particular, are such important figures in the annals of rock.

One of the best concert films of musicians of a more recent vintage is Shut Up and Play the Hits, the pulsating document of LCD Soundsystem at New York's Madison Square Garden. Main man James Murphy said that show would be his band's last ever (until, ahem, they reformed in 2015), and there was a great sense of celebration in the air that night.

The superbly shot concert footage was interspersed with shots of Murphy going about a very normal, humdrum day and being interviewed by the world's most irritating journalist.

Of course, there are times when the lines blur between concert film proper and fly-on-the-wall documentary, as was the case with Truth Or Dare, which captured Madonna at the very peak during her Blonde Ambition tour of 1990. Although she was clearly in control of the film, the cameras managed to give us a voyeuristic look at a singer who had seemingly come from nowhere six years before to become one of the biggest stars on the planet.

And the cameras were in the right place years later when documenting Chicago's alt-rock kingpins Wilco during the making of their masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart - named after the album's first track - portrayed a band who were struggling to keep it all together, while also delivering some of the most special music of their career.

But back to the concert-film genre and in the year of David Bowie's death, it's impossible to ignore Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, DA Pennebaker's revealing document of Bowie's most celebrated creation. Pennebaker had been there a few years before to film Bob Dylan's conversion from folkie to rocker and his Ziggy film is just as masterful.

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is on Netflix from October 12.

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