By Reid Ramsey (December 4, 2016)
If the mainstream movie trend of 2015 was exploring rebellion and defeating social norms through a familiar pop-culture lens, then the trend of 2016 has been using the same lens for escapism, or more simply to entertain. Reflecting on 2016 will involve looking at celebrity deaths, a violent political climate, and a society who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is shrouded in a post-truth media. This is escapist entertainment’s moment. Jonathan Demme delivered the new concert movie Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids earlier this year, and it fits nicely with the other escapist gems of the year, Hail, Caesar!, The Shallows, and Sing Street to name a few.
The title of the film is not misleading. Demme manages to humanize one of the major pop-icons of the century, while also bringing to life his band, The Tennessee Kids. The movie opens with each of the band members introducing themselves, leading up to the pre-concert prayer and huddle led by JT himself. For a concert movie, it has an inspiring emotional core. I was honestly overwhelmed watching this group break their huddle and take the stage for the last show of their tour.
My favorite moment comes as Timberlake is on the trap door lift about to be raised onto the stage. We hear the countdown and the crowd’s anticipation, but the real joy is watching his anticipation. He paces back and forth and is genuinely excited, making faces at the crew members and showing vulnerability that we don’t often allow superstars.
The show itself is a wonder (a techie’s dream, or nightmare). The opulent set surrounds the band members, dancers, and JT—all dressed in what might be the best-tailored suits of all time. As a performer, he is generous. Some of the best moments push JT off to a supporting role as a band member steps in to dance or sing a solo.
It’s also one of the best looking films of the year. Demme does not disappoint. I imagine the concert loses something when watched on a screen, but maybe it gains even more. Demme’s framing and camera choices are enough to bring the audience into the MGM Garden Arena and up close to the icon.
Having to defend Hail, Caesar! for much of the year to all the skeptics, the other person always says, “Sure it’s funny, but it’s nothing other than entertainment.” When did it suddenly become uncool to be entertaining? Just let yourselves be entertained. Sit back and let Justin Timberlake dance for you for 90 minutes—people loved it when it was Gene Kelly. This year, more so than ever, I’m placing a high price on entertainment.