Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 4th, 2024
Luther: Never Too Much (Dawn Porter, 2024) 3½ out of 5 stars*
Multi-hyphenate pop star Luther Vandross (1951-2005) may have departed this Earth too soon, but he left behind a musical legacy that should last far beyond our own lifetimes. A prolific songwriter, he cut his teeth on Sesame Street and, later, TV jingles before then blossoming as a renowned solo artist in the 1980s. In her latest documentary, Luther: Never Too Much, director Dawn Porter (Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer) gives Vandross a cinematic tribute his fans are sure to love.
Though perhaps those who don’t care as much about him might find some of what transpires less fascinating, given how Porter leans into the music and personal details of her subject’s life. Then again, if one is not interested in Vandross as musician or man, why bother watching? For here, one finds all one could hope to know.
If not, perhaps, the full truth about Vandross’ sexuality. Despite presenting many ins and outs of the singer’s work and health, the filmmaker chooses to allow Vandross to have the last word, vague as it is. He claims a right to privacy, and really, whose business was it but his?
In addition to copious archival materials that give us Vandross at various stages of his career, there are many interviewees who add to our understanding of what made him special. Among them are longtime friends and collaborators Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark, and Fonzi Thornton, who help set the stage of the early days. I had no idea that Vandross sang backup on David Bowie’s Young Americans album; you can hear his voice behind the lead on the title track. Bowie was apparently so impressed with Vandross that he involved him much more in the songs than originally anticipated, while simultaneously predicting future great things.
Bowie was not wrong, though Vandross first found himself pursuing a lucrative career in the commercial world while continuing to sing backup for more established luminaries. One of those, Roberta Flack (also interviewed here), decided to “fire” Vandross to force him to finally pursue his solo career.
And what a career it turned out to be, though not without its pitfalls, thanks to sometimes racist treatment by white record executives (according to Vandross’ later collaborator, Richard Marx). The 1980s were definitely Vandross’ heyday, with hits like this documentary’s eponymous song and, my favorite, “Power of Love (Love Power).” Along the way, Vandross would struggle with body image, fluctuating between various weights, dieting off and on. “I obsess about food,” he says at one point.
Unfortunately, that pattern, coupled with diabetes, is what eventually did him in, his death coming upon the heels of one of his most personal songs, “Dance with My Father.” It was an homage to his dad, who passed when Vandross was only 8. Legendary music producer Clive Davis, along with Marx, talks about the meaning of that song and its success.
Many more folks also discuss his gift to the world, including Dionne Warwick, actor Jamie Foxx (also a producer on the film), and Vandross’ personal assistant, Max Szadek. It’s sad letting go, but there is joy in the celebration of the music. There can never be too much of it.
[Luther: Never Too Much just premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.]
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.