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A Legend in 20/20 Vision: In Conversation with Justin Timberlake and Jonathan Demme

Examining JT's pop legacy through his new film, 'Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.'

by Sarah MacDonald
Sep 16 2016, 4:06pm

Near the end of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, Justin Timberlake's new concert film, he smirks at the audience of his 2015 Las Vegas show before swaggerishly announcing, "I still run this, bitch!" It's the kind of booming announcement that would come off as amateur or trying for nearly anyone else but for Timberlake that sentiment fits as precisely as the bespoke suits he dons in his 20/20 Experience tour. Justin Timberlake—a former teen pop idol, movie star, celebrity, and marvel solo artist—hasn't stopped running this shit.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, streaming on Netflix next month, premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and it was a rapturous event—Roy Thomson Hall thundered in a way that is typically reserved for stadiums on concert night. Timberlake is the most beloved performer from his or any boy band in pop history. After introducing the film, he ambled to his seat, which was approximately five feet from mine, where he ate popcorn and sipped his drink as though he, too, were anticipating the same experience as the rest of us.


Though Timberlake's career has been relatively issue-free compared to others in the industry, let alone those starting out as a child singer, his legacy hasn't been all highs: what happened with Janet Jackson at the Superbowl that unfairly fell squarely on her; his tumultuous and doomed relationship with pop queen Britney Spears; this first Canadian performance with 'NSYNC on MuchMusic's Electric Circus; and moving beyond his boy band confines to pursue his solo work, which many have tried to do but have not seen this level of success. Recently, Timberlake's second studio album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, celebrated its tenth anniversary. Timberlake was more confident on that record, as opposed to Justified where he was finding his footing as a solo artist. 

On The 20/20 Experience, however, Timberlake was more mature. Where we expect legacy pop stars to be is exactly where Timberlake is in his career. Where that career will go after this film and what we can expect of him is unknown, which seems like what any good pop icon would gesture to—they like to keep us guessing.  "You feel lucky that a song happens, you know, so, but I don't think you can know ahead of time or as it's happening what you're actually saying or exonerating or discovering," Timberlake tells me, quite aptly, under bright spotlights at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.

This is not only a music documentary but it is an important marker in Timberlake's overall significant public status. The film is very minimal, narratively speaking: it focuses on the final nights of Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience tour at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Each member of the Tennessee Kids—what Timberlake called his performance collective comprised of dancers and musicians—were introduced but Timberlake barely had any backstage camera time and no questions were asked of him. Jonathan Demme, the film's director, said that, "visually, the show that Justin and his collaborators put together [is] the kind of imagery that never stops being surprising and amazing and intricate, coupled with the lighting and the use of lasers. I'd never seen anything like that before," he says. "I don't think there's a whole lot of people putting that much work into visuals. It's an extraordinarily cinematic show."


Having Demme on board for Timberlake's music film is an incredible win for the pop star—and in another sense further confirmation of his pop legend status. Demme has directed critical feature hits, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married, as well as music docs like Neil Young's Heart of Gold and The Talking Heads music film Stop Making Sense. There are imprints of Demme's style on Stop Making Sense found throughout Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids: from the shadow of the suit at the beginning of the show to close-ups of the performers to an intimacy onstage in Stop Making Sense. Timberlake says a good example of that intimacy was found in "What Goes Around..." because "by nature because the stage goes all the way out and I'm able to get in the middle of the crowd for a portion of the set. That's a different feeling altogether where you look and you're, you know, you're really in an arena."

Timberlake had long left his seat by the time "Mirrors" cued up at the end of the film, so who knows if he heard the audience clapping and singing along to songs that are four years removed, an eon in internet time. That the entire theatre connected so deeply with this film says something. Timberlake has always been authentically Timberlake, which is vital for a pop icon to be legendary, though Timberlake's legacy status isn't a new fact by any means. No matter their journey, the transformations they have gone through, there is always a realness explicitly present. The core of The 20/20 Experience, as well its tours and this film, is the sentiment of hindsight—how things appear in 20/20. "That you'll always be able to look back and go 'oh, that's the thing I shouldn't have done' or 'that's the thing I should have done,'" says Timberlake. "So, I don't know, but it will be real, I will tell you that."

Sarah MacDonald ​used to love A.J. McLean. Follow her on Twitter.​​​