Jonathan Demme Shares Stories Behind Justin Timberlake, Talking Heads & Neil Young Concert Documentaries

Billboard

Director Jonathan Demme's new concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, out on Netflix today (Oct. 12), was shot on the final stop of the singer's 20/20 Experience Tour in Las Vegas. There are no in-depth interviews or footage of the singer trying his hand at the blackjack table -- the focus is the stage and the sheer electricity of the show.

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It's flashy, colorful and big -- very different to Demme's first foray into concert documentaries, the Talking Heads' now legendary Stop Making Sense, and his more recent trilogy for Neil Young, 2006's Heart of Gold, 2009's Trunk Show and 2012's Journeys.

During the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for the world premiere of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids last month, Demme  -- whose thriller The Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards and drama Philadelphia won two -- did an Art of Performance sit down with TIFF's documentary programmer Thom Powers. The focus was to discuss "his approaches to capturing performance and his painstaking process of finding the right cinematic style to reflect different performers."

Here are some cool tips, tricks, tales and tidbits Demme offered about his concert films for Timberlake, Young and Talking Heads.

Jonathan Demme on Working With Justin Timberlake:

We had a huge room in Vegas. We had 14 operated cameras that Declan Quinn, the director of photography, and I deployed over many pre-filming engagements. We had the opportunity to have two other free-floating cameras in the audience. And then there was also a cameraman, one of the greatest shooters of all time, a young guy, Canadian, named Adam CK Vollick, who I met from Neil Young when we did Neil Young Journeys. I've worked with Adam on a couple of different performance films since then because Adam has this extraordinary sense of where the music's going next, and he loves to makes connections. I asked Justin, "Look, would it be okay if we had one cameraman onstage with you?" And Justin, who is great to work with, by the way, he said, "Well, yeah. Two things: if he can stay out of our way; and two, if you put him in a really nice suit." Part of what we're going to talk about here is collaboration and what I like to call "collective invention." So Adam now has a free pass to do whatever he wants to do. I can't see what he's doing because he's not hooked up to a monitor.

This is me: "We've got to have two constant close-ups of Justin, singing all these songs, and Declan goes, "Good. And let's have those close up cameras on dollies so they're always in slight motion. That will be very nice." And I'm like [snaps] "Wow, that great." We're always going to have to have one full figure of Justin head to toe because there's a lot of dancing in this. We're gonna need tie-in shots, then that becomes our big thing -- how can we best tie in difference members of the band? Justin and others, and others and others, so we can really present this notion of  "this is community of people up here making great music together; they love working together" and if you can vibe into that kind of connection, it's going to make you enjoy the piece, I think. So you just do that and then you fight with the promoter of the concert -   "You can't have that entire row for your dolly track" and the response is, "I think we can because Justin Timberlake went out and got a lot of money to film this and we have to do a really perfect job, so sorry." You dig your heels in and when you're my age, you really dig your heels in.

Demme on Working With Talking Heads:

Right band, right place syndrome. That was that band at that moment in time and luckily we got to film them, and as a footnote, they never played together again. That was it. They made one more album. They never toured again. So we got there just in time.

The reason Stop Making Sense happened was I went to a performance, I guess it was late 1983, of the Talking Heads, a New York band; I'm a New York guy. I happened to be in California working and getting my ass kicked by Warner Brothers and we go to this concert and I knew the Heads, I'd seen them play in CBGBs and Central Park. I knew the band, but I hadn't seen the tour. And as I watched that particular show, I was like, "Wow, this is really like a movie just waiting to be filmed. Look at this lighting; look at these characters David does; look at this great band."  I also felt there was this sense in that particular show of an implied narrative, that there was some kind of journey David Byrne was personifying as he went from song to song. 

So we just went to Warner Brothers, which was the label that the Heads were on, and got a talk with David and we pitched him on this idea of filming it. 'Cause I'm so in awe of David Byrne, in 1983, the coolest, shiest person on the planet, and I tell him, "That's what we would do." So David goes,  "If we do this movie, what will make it different from all the other concerts that have been made?'" And I was like, "Oh, shit, he's got me." So then I was like, what the hell, all I can say is "David, onstage it's going to be Talking Heads and it's going to be directed by me [laughs]. Beyond that I can't tell you," and he's like, "Mmm, okay." The reason I knew we had him was that David puts so much work into the lighting aspect of that. He had done drawings and on the road he knew that the audience was never seeing what he saw in his head because in these venues they'd be the clock and the lights and stuff, so you weren't getting the pure lighting scheme. On film David knew that finally his vision, his lighting vision, would be fulfilled. Then when I reached out to Jordan Cronenweth, the DP on Blade Runner and one of our most superb cameraman ever, David and Jordan really teamed up and redesigned David's thing a little bit. I was just concerned with how to film it.

Here's the biggest lesson in shooting performance. The first night of Stop Making Sense, which we shot at the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, in Los Angeles, we had, let's say, eight cameras; great shooters and the lighting was all set up. My assumption was that you're going to be filming audience reactions and what have you. So the first night comes up and Jordan put a little ambience onto the audience so that the camera that was shooting the audience would get a good image of it. And the show tanked. It never caught fire. The audience wasn't really responding. The band got sloppy. They weren't having fun. And the one time I'd ever seen David Byrne mad was at the end of the show. He came running in, he said "You can't ever have those lights on the audience. The audience was so self conscious. They weren't giving us anything. Fuck that." I was like, "Wow, that's an extraordinary thing to know about."

So two things happened: I never wasted a camera on the audience again for a music film, and, let's face it, something more interesting has got to be going on onstage than what's going on out there. And we didn't want the audience. Towards the end, some lights came up and that was cool but when you do performance films you really want to feel as a moviegoer, that this film was made for me. I am the primary recipient of this film. And if you start seeing these people rocking out in the audience then you start going, "Oh I wish I'd been there." Because as hard as we try -- and I think it's a great, noble, wonderful effort -- I don't believe when it comes to music, and even theater -- it's hard for film for images on film and song coming through speakers, to complete with being there in the room with real people playing real music or actors really acting in that room with you and there's spit coming out -- so we try to compete with that. We try to justify that we're going to take that live thing and re-channel it for movie audiences. So we have the benefit of being able to go in close and get different perspectives, become the roving best seat in the house.

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids, you see the audience quite a bit -- so it becomes the exception that makes the rule. Because Justin has this particular relationship with the audience and the audience in this film became kind of a character, so oddly I -- who never like to film audiences -- wind up with a new movie that has a lot the audience in it. I'm thrilled by that dimension. Keep learning, baby.

Demme on Working With Neil Young:

[After Young did the title song "Philadelphia" for Demme's film]. The next time Neil's on the east coast, we go to the concert and it was amazing, and I met Neil for the first time after that and we kind of developed a little bit of a dialogue. I volunteered to do a video and I wound up shooting a four-song piece live. It's called The Complex Sessions. We had a lot of fun working together on that… I'm not quite sure when it was, I get a phone call from Elliot [Roberts, Young's manager], "I've got Neil here." He says, "Jonathan, I want to do a movie of Greendale; would you like to direct it?" I was like, "Oh my god, I was on preproduction on this controversial remake of Manchurian Candidate. I had to say, 'Thanks anyway Neil, but I can't do that." Luckily Neil made the film. It's extraordinary. Anyway, after I did Manchurian Candidate that was the death of studio movies for me. I never wanted to do that again. It cost an enormous amount of money to make. It came in on budget and it was the subject of tremendous disputes between the producer and the studio, and me and the movie we were caught in the middle of it. It turned out the way I wanted it to. We had final cut and I never wanted to do that again. So I was like, I'm going on a long sabbatical. So I live in this little town on the Hudson River called Nyack, and I just stared having this wonderful life and about a year later I found myself starting to itch to want to shoot something and I was like, "I think I'm going to call up Neil Young and see what he's got going on."

I had seen his Greendale by then and it was great. So I called up and he said, "I'm just finishing up this album called Prairie Wind" and he told me he'd had an aneuryism and it could have been fatal and he's written these introspective songs and he said, "Maybe we can do something with this new body of music?" He said, "I think it's one of the better things I've done in a long time," so I said, "Can I hear it?"  He sent me the songs and they were great so we started talking on the phone. What happened through the conversations was the idea of let's turn this into a kind of tribute to Nashville, which Neil loves so much and I love so much. So what it turned into was a love letter to the Grand Ole Opry-style of presenting music to an audience. I worked with a wonderful painter on making two fabulous backdrops and then we chose the Ryman Auditorium, which is the church in Nashville of country music. We filmed that on two nights and that was so exciting because no one in the audience... the record hadn't come out yet, so we were actually debuting a new body of work by a major composer.

You have trust that the audience is going to love these songs as much as you do. And they're going to respond the way David Byrne pointed out that they need to respond in order to feed the people onstage.

That's it: no audience, as many cameras as you can afford, and once you put it together, just don't cut. When we cut Heart of Gold, this was me being funny at the time, I go to the cutting room on the first day told [editor] Andy Keir, "Okay Andy, I'd like to see your first cut at about four this afternoon and ha ha ha." I said, "Oh, no, I'm serious. Take the close-ups and just cut the close-ups together and then we'll start watching this movie and decide when it's worth going to something other than an amazing close-up of Neil Young singing his songs." And in this way we built our narrative. That's the other thing. You've got to have those connective angles, where you get the gold of somebody doing what they're doing -- shooting a look to somebody over here and we've got them both in the shot.  That's the magic. That's really the phenomenal glue and that's one of the reasons that Justin reached out because he saw that in Stop Making Sense and he loves his band so much.