Filled with wonderful musical performances exploring the 30-year career of Luther Vandross, Dawn Porter’s sweeping biographical documentary Luther: Never Too Much interweaves archival materials and new interviews in a manner that is effective at telling the story but somehow feels a little too distant from its subject. In particular, the selection of archival materials of Vandross, who passed away in 2005 at age 54, and the film’s later chapters divulging personal struggles with health and weight along with speculation about his sexuality, keep the viewer at arm’s length. Perhaps this is somewhat by design, a case of the film’s subject not speaking out, as some speculate for fear of alienating his female fans and perhaps his record label.
A barrier-breaking artist in many respects, Vandross grew up in the projects of the Bronx before becoming a seminal recording artist working as a background vocalist, producer, and later a solo artist advocating for increased play, recognition, and compensation for Black R&B artists. Porter’s film arrives as the Bronx native is making a name for himself as a backup vocalist working with nearly everyone, including David Bowie on “Young Americans” and infusing Sesame Street with an uplifting rhythm to make learning fun that he describes in an interview as “almost rap.” Before breaking out on his own, Vandross worked with a variety of pop artists of the day, including Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Ringo Starr, Donna Summer, and Sister Sledge, playing a key part in the development of both disco and the Philadelphia sound that offered a soulful, lush East Coast departure from the more buttoned-up Motown.
It was around this time he landed in Philadelphia and started writing jingles, including for the famed Cheesesteak stand Ginos where he certainly sold the sizzle and not just the steak. Buzzing through this chapter, he practiced his craft selling beer, gum, soda, fast food, Kodak film, and the Olympics, banking the checks and getting ready for his solo breakout in the 1980s.
Working with an immense amount of archival material under the direction of his record label, Porter remarkably spotlights an artist at work. Yet the form feels vaguely faint, offering a Wikipedia-esque overview both polite and a tad tedious. Questions about his health (he was diabetic), sexuality (he never married), and a deadly car crash are conveyed with a tabloid focus lacking nuance. Vandross, we’re told, came to regret that the focus of his final album tour was on his weight-loss story rather than one a focus on his artistry.
With a few talking heads, including collaborators with whom he broke the rules and celebrity admirers like Jamie Foxx (also a producer of the film), Luther: Never Too Much is strongest when it focuses on the artistry and life, brushing past much of his early life in the Bronx and moving quickly through the ups and downs of his career. Would the film have been stronger if it had focused more on his childhood? Perhaps Porter’s calculus is that it has been done before.
Luther: Never Too Much is an evocative celebration of the artistry and the myth, but it did leave me wanting a portrait that is as deep and insightful as Porter’s other pictures. This picture feels like it is either too repetitive and could be trimmed or could be expanded into a mini-series with additional material.
Luther: Never Too Much premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.