Tribeca 2024 Review: Luther: Never Too Much

Luther Vandross built a recording career on love songs featuring his unforgettable voice, but director Dawn Porter takes a deep dive into his past to examine the path he took to reach the pinnacle of his profession. 

Buy The Very Best Of Luther Vandross CD

One of the best aspects of good artist spotlight documentaries is discovering lesser-known facts about the artist, and Porter’s documentary is stuffed with them. She reveals that after Vandross formed an early singing group called Listen My Brother, they got a boost from none other than Jim Henson, as their sound matched his vision for music on Sesame Street. With one door open, Vandross found many more, including backup vocals and arrangement on David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and backup vocals on all songs on Chic’s first two albums, including their biggest hit, “Le Freak”.

Using archival interviews with Vandross and new interviews with his associates, Porter explores his winding road to success throughout the 1970s. While he may have desired a rapid breakout solo career, he resigned himself to paying dues through his session recording work, touring for years as a backup singer for Bette Midler, and even recording advertising jingles. Eventually, he had built enough of a name for himself within the industry that he was able to land a recording contract and bring his self-written songs into the public.

His rise to massive fame in the 1980s shone a light on his lifestyle, which Porter handles with reverence and delicacy. If you remember Vandross, you know that he was constantly scrutinized for his wildly fluctuating weight, as well as his peculiar lack of a romantic partner. Rumors of homosexuality swirled throughout the years, especially as the country grappled with the specter of AIDS and feared every time he lost weight it was due to the disease. Porter shows multiple interviews of Vandross refusing to discuss his sexuality, even as he mourns his seeming inability to find a soulmate. It’s sobering to remember that the king of love songs was seemingly unlucky in love, with his own best-known lyrics more inspirational than confessional. 

Porter maintains a firm chronology throughout the film, utilizing era-specific archival interview footage with Vandross to help him craft a posthumous autobiography. She also reveals the genuine affection his longtime associates still carry for him, clearly displayed in new reminiscences from his band members including Lisa Fischer, herself briefly a solo artist during her backup years with Vandross. Other appreciative featured collaborators include Dionne Warwick, Nile Rodgers, Mariah Carey, and Richard Marx.

Shortly before this year’s Tribeca Festival, the film was acquired by CNN Films and Oprah Winfrey Network, with broadcast now set for sometime next year. It’s all too fitting that the film will air on OWN, as it showcases interview footage from his multiple appearances on Oprah’s shows throughout the years and displays Oprah’s massive fandom for his work. Even if you think you know the general story, Porter’s insightful documentary is a loving ode to the master musician filled with little-known details.

Steve Geise

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