The Mazza Matter: God Damn It, Justin Timberlake’s Showmanship Is Almost Too Good

Jonathan Demme’s new Netflix concert documentary shows JT and the Tennessee Kids as the ultimate Vegas entertainers.

I get it - pop music isn't for everyone.

And more than 14 years after NSYNC’s “temporary hiatus” that became an official break up, there are still people who rag on Justin Timberlake because he started out in a boy band and once had hair that looked like uncooked Ramen noodles.

But Justin wasn’t the only person in the ‘90s with frosty tips, two diamond stud earrings, monochromatic clothing and puppets of himself. He was just the best.

Back then, though, I was too busy singing along to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”. I missed the NSYNC years while they were happening because I was a fool.

Fortunately in the early 2000s there was nothing I loved more after a night of going out than coming home and closing out the evening with some late night MTV, and I was fortunate enough to join the JT train early because I caught the video for “Like I Love You” when it was first in rotation. At 3am that first night I thought I wasn’t changing the channel because his Michael Jackson rip off was a funny joke, but then it got inside my – braaaaiiiin, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

And then because I married Sarah Pitre, a massive boy band lover from way back who spent all of the ‘90s checking out pretty much every Backstreet, NSYNC and New Kids concert ever, I’ve had a constant companion for crazy pop music shows ever since the Future Sex / Love Sounds show in Houston at the Toyota Center.

We skipped the 20/20 Tour for some reason, and watching Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids on Netflix last night not only bummed me out in regards to that life decision but also reminded me what a fantastic showman JT is. 

It’s not just the show itself, either, because from the opening of Jonathan Demme's concert film we see Justin arrive back stage, and HE CARRIES HIS OWN BAG INTO THE ARENA!

Okay, sure, maybe he only does that when the cameras are rolling, but still. You know that if the cameras were following Ariana Grande backstage she’d have extra people carrying extra bags just to show everyone how great she is. Justin’s there for the crew.

And Demme makes sure we meet the crew, too, with an extended opening where just about every musician, dancer and singer involved with the show gets a chance to introduce themselves by name, what their role is in the show, and where they’re from.

Incidentally it turns out that not many of the Tennessee Kids hail from The Volunteer State itself, but it’s still a nice touch that continues throughout the show as the camera makes sure all the supporting players get front and center screen time along with Justin.

We join the gang back stage for their traditional preshow prayer, and it’s nice to see Justin still starts his shows with a message to the troops and a clapping game for energy, just as he did backstage in HBO’s concert doc for Future Sex / Love Sounds at Madison Square Garden.

Also like that doc, we see him from below the stage as he steps onto the hydraulic lift that will bring him onto the main stage and out to thousands of screaming fans. I love that he hasn’t updated that entrance, because obviously rising from below the ground on a slowly rising platform is pretty much the ultimate way to make an entrance into any room.

He’s wearing a pretty traditional tux for the start of the show - it appears to be Tom Ford, even all the way down to his patent leather shoes, a move away from his old “My Love” look of suits with sneakers. He’s in Vegas, after all, and he’s going to take over Sinatra’s home town with all of Ol’ Blue Eyes' class, but quite a bit more falsetto.

The show opens with an extended version of “Pusher Love Girl” and JT isn’t the only one that gets to make the perfect entrance – then entire band is on powered lifts and everyone dramatically rise up to stage level, decked out in suits on a set with classic big band style. The camera lingers a bit and we’re made sure of it – this is a show about musicians, not just a celebration of pop.

After that, he starts in on a selection of his biggest hits from throughout his solo career, launching straight into “Rock Your Body” while still wearing his tux, and that’s when the choreography comes out and it’s impossible to be anything but jealous of the way the man can move his body.

I just wish Fantastic Fest would have a version of the Fantastic Debates where the final arguments came down to a dance battle so I could give myself the excuse to take hours and hours of dance lessons trying to learn just a handful of his moves, because that sounds way more fun than trying to psyche myself up to get hit in the face a lot. Maybe if we can get the next Step Up movie for opening night…

Okay, daydream over.

At this point in the show, the stage is a pretty traditional set up on one end of the massive arena, but the background hexagon panels that serve as a screen for giant projections and also hide a wall of various lights and lasers that pop out at key moments is super incredible:

And I love the way Justin always incorporates wings to his stages so he can run out to the edges and talk to the people in the cheaper seats. The man isn’t there for himself, he’s there for that crowd, and he wants to make sure everyone in it has an incredible experience. 

Sure, it's a bit of a stripped down stage production when compared to Kanye's crazy floating over the entire audience the entire time: 

Or Taylor Swift's (admittedly incredible) 1989 Tour:

But it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t need any gimmicks whatsoever because the man just COMMANDS the stage. 

Watching the concert as a movie with plenty of close ups, you also notice that in several of those early songs he’ll take a break from singing to ask the crowd to fill in for him, or to let the back up singers do their thing so he can just dance and go nuts, but even when he’s not singing his own hooks, it just highlights the fact that when he puts the microphone up to his mouth that really is his performance, really happening right then (you don’t get that sense when you see a certain ex of his in her own Vegas residency right now). 

He keeps on going through “My Love” and “Lovestoned,” and starts up with some of his hooks from “Holy Grail,” and yeah, you miss Jay-Z and wish he’d just pop in, too, but then he closes out that hook out an amazing laser show for “Only When I Walk Away,” and yup, that's why they credited his laser team individually in the opening credits! 

He keeps going from there, picking up a guitar to remind us that he can actually play instruments, too. This part is a bit dull to me personally because it’s just a bunch of people playing guitars and being insanely talented, and the lights are all kind of regular and it’s a concert not a show, so I was tempted to take a bathroom break.

Of course, Justin anticipates that, and just as an extra fuck you to anyone dumb enough to actually get up (or to not hurry back immediately), after that song he goes into "Let The Groove Get In," with repeated lyrics “Are you comfortable right there?” As an answer, his main stage rises and starts floating over the audience with a plexiglass floor so people below can look up at the bottom of his pants as he and key dancers/musicians perform while riding the stage to the back of the arena.

I suddenly remembered hearing about this when people came back from the show, and that's when I was first jealous I missed it. What I didn’t realize is that unlike Kanye’s fun stage that he’s harnessed onto, Justin and his dancers do all of this with no cords attached and basically no rails anywhere on the main floor. That’s crazy!

He leaves the lights up high, and continues going up to the high sides of his stage wings so people everywhere can get a good look at him. He knows that’s why he’s there, and while this look may not have the same Art as Kanye floating through his ultralight beam, it still feels like superior Showmanship, and his crowd loves him for it.

To thank them, JT steps down into the crowd a bit to say hello to Timbaland, grab a shot of tequila, and do some more direct banter with his fans. 

From a smaller stage surrounded by audience members in a special bar section of the arena, JT starts singing "Human Nature", which if you don’t recall opens with "reaching out, to touch a stranger", paying homage to one of the legends that inspired him and also making a more personal connection with his audience than even MJ ever could. 

The film makes a weird cut after that set. Suddenly Justin and his crew are back on the main stage area – anyone know what happened to get them there? – where he and two of the dancers go into a performance of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” possibly just because the other performers wanted to and knew they could kill it.

Of course he has to close out the show with his biggest hits, so we get “Suit and Tie” (performed in a new outfit, without the actual tie on anymore) and “Sexyback” (without a cameo from Timbaland even though we all know he’s in the building). Then Justin does a little bow to the crowd before going into “Mirrors,” his final song of the night.

I swear he starts to tear up at the end while looking out at the audience, then bows to the crowd again and takes his time saying goodbye while the Tennessee Kids play him off. As his stage pod lowers him back down into the depths from which he rose, the credits start to roll with a dedication to Prince Roger Nelson. 

Even the closing credits are a joy to watch, though, because Demme takes us back to the very beginning of the event, and we see the Vegas crew unloading trucks and setting up all of that crazy production and staging. I know those tickets were super expensive, but watching all of that go up and knowing it has to come down again after just two shows makes it seem crazy they can still turn a hefty profit with these events.

The only downside to this film is that it only got a Netflix release, so you can’t watch it in a theater filled with other Timberlake fans who will all want to sing along with you.

But don’t let that stop you.

Turn the volume way up, bring over your most pop-obsessed friends, and don’t just Netflix and Chill with this one – Netflix and Party.

Yeah, that’s a hashtag that will never catch on, but still.