In her latest documentary, Luther: Never Too Much, Dawn Porter crafts a striking profile of a singular musician. That Luther Vandross, who died in 2005, hasn’t gotten the documentary treatment until now is surprising considering his imprint on the music industry. Vandross — a true multi-hyphenate — sang, arranged and produced records for himself and other iconic artists. He worked with David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, for example. He wasn’t just popular with fans for his velvety voice and romantic numbers; he was beloved by industry stalwarts, some of whom appear in Porter’s documentary. Even for those familiar with the “Never Too Much” crooner, Porter’s project is essential viewing.
Premiering at Sundance, Luther: Never Too Much is a trove of archival material. Porter uses rehearsal footage, concert videos, old interviews with Vandross and newer ones with his friends and family to tell the musician’s story. The film begins on an ebullient note with rehearsal clips of the singer and his ensemble practicing their cover of McFadden & Whitehead’s smooth record, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” When the film cuts to the performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1994, the video of Vandross onstage — with his background dancers in shimmering jade outfits — is in color. Porter uses this striking technique throughout the film (rehearsal footage in black and white, live concert videos in color), offering a distinction between Vandross’ necessarily subdued working style and his magnetic stage presence.
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He learned how to charm audiences by watching his favorite musicians. As a child, Vandross would tune into The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday. He studied how Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson sang, how they moved, how they looked at audiences watching them from their television sets. He also noticed what they wore. In videos from later in his career, when Vandross toured the world and collected accolades, you can see the influence of Motown aesthetics in his shows.
Before he was a certified platinum artist, Vandross was a kid living in the Bronx with his mother, father and siblings. He grew up poor, but in an interview Porter includes in her film, Vandross rejects any suggestion that his childhood was any less fulfilling as a result. “My impression of growing up,” he says, “was that life was great.” The singer cited love as the reason for this perspective. With so much love in his house, how could he be unhappy?
Luther: Never Too Much doesn’t spend a lot of time on Vandross’ upbringing. Although this decision leaves more space for understanding the musician’s career, it does inspire some questions in the latter half of the doc, when family members make cameos. In the loosely biographical section of the doc, we learn that Vandross’ father, Luther Vandross Sr., died when he was young and that the junior Vandross knew he wanted to be a singer by the time he was 13. He tried to start a group with his childhood friends, Fonzi Thornton, Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar, who recall Vandross pitching the idea. A particular set of stories Vandross told to get his group mates to purchase coordinating jade green shoes illustrate the artist’s determination when he got hooked on an idea.
Perhaps that’s why there was never a Plan B for Vandross when it came to his music. He was going to make it — one way or another. Porter’s doc is strongest when reviewing Vandross’ work. Interviews with musicians like the singer Valerie Simpson, Chic founder Nile Rodgers, jazz composer Nat Adderley Jr., and songwriter Marcus Miller contribute to a better understanding of the soul singer’s career. He started as a background vocalist, sang on Sesame Street and dipped into commercial jingles to make money before eventually collaborating with artists like Bowie and Roberta Flack. The interviewed musicians also analyze Vandross’ music, which offer technical insight into the enduring popularity of his output.
It was Flack who encouraged Vandross to take the leap required to record his own album. After their conversation, which Vandross historically recalled as happening on the day he was fired (Flack disagrees), the musician released “Never Too Much.” The record changed his life, catapulting the star to new levels of fame. But it also exhumed old issues. From his early days, Vandross struggled with his weight, toggling between periods of overeating and extreme dieting. Porter uses the media attention on the singer’s body — jokes by comedians, never-ending comments by talk show hosts, newspaper headlines — as an entry point to examining Vandross’ complicated relationship to himself.
The musician wanted love, but had challenges finding it. Luther: Never Too Much gives some space to speculations about Vandross’ sexuality, but it doesn’t linger. Instead, the doc circles the topic of his weight and his desire to be loved with some distance. There’s an understandable hesitation to focus on whom Vandross wanted to love instead of the fact that he simply craved that experience, but Luther: Never Too Much noticeably rushes through these sections before landing at its celebratory conclusion.
That hastiness, coupled with some 11th hour revelations about Vandross’ health and his family, makes the doc’s later stretches feel less sturdy than what came before. Still, by the end of Luther: Never Too Much, we have a vivid sense of Vandross as someone so attuned to the textures of his artistry that his music always loved him back.
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