Smooth operator: Timberlake onstage with a dancer at Motorpoint Arena. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Justin Timberlake, the 20/20 Experience Tour

“This is too good. Will the pleasure never end?” asks Kate Mossman as she witnesses the endothermic showman Justin Timberlake in concert in Sheffield.

Justin Timberlake
Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield

There’s an idea – peculiarly British – that flawless musicianship sometimes comes at the expense of soul. I think it’s something put about by non-musicians trying to deal with the sick feeling of seeing someone brilliant onstage. Watching a great musician is like watching a wire-walker. You’re jittery, elated, adrenalised – but what can you do about it, standing in the crowd like Soft Mick? I felt this way when I saw Dweezil Zappa at the Barbican in 2011, duetting with a giant, pixelated version of his dad: this is too good. Will the pleasure never end? And I felt it so much at Justin Timberlake’s gig in Sheffield on 30 March that I had to leave before the last song and retire to bed to watch YouTube clips of the tour instead, better able to contend with my excitement on a 12-inch screen.

Timberlake and his 11-piece band the Tennessee Kids are rammed in a tiny space at the front of the stage for the drinking song “Drink You Away”. One of the backing singers is on the floor, a leg folded under her; one of the horn players looks like John Shuttleworth; every musician is singing. This moment of carefully choreographed chaos, an unusual use of a vast, clean space, is one of several simple but innovative production tricks tonight. Another is the interval (every big show should have an interval); another is the moving Perspex runway hanging across the crowd, raking the entire arena front to back so everyone, at some point, gets a close-up look at Timberlake’s face.

Gigs of this size often feel like a one-way deal: pop royalty puts on wonderful pageant for the scrofulous masses, exits exhausted, does it all again the following night. But I can testify, from my position under the plastic rung, that Timberlake appears to be one of those rare endothermic showmen whose energy is continually topped up by little collisions with the crowd. His eyes dart from face to face and he bites his bottom lip like he’s trying not to laugh. It’s probably just the way he’s wired – he’s got ADHD – but he’s one of the only musicians I’ve seen who appears to be more lively at the end of the show than at the start, like some kind of strange Duracell bunny in spats.

Born in Memphis, he was a child star on the Disney show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside a pubescent Britney, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. After a stint with the boy band ’N Sync, he reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with a slick 1970s soul-funk sound, just before everyone else started doing that kind of thing. He went into movies and established himself as someone with a brain through various satirical TV skits, including one in which he played Elton John singing a version of “Candle in the Wind” for Hugo Chávez (Saturday Night Live). Last year’s album The 20/20 Experience impressed the kind of people who call themselves “serious music fans” with its intricate, eight-minute, Quincy Jones-style soul-pop songs. When our distant forebears look back on popular music, they will not be able to distinguish between the best of his output – such as “Rock Your Body” – and a tune by Michael Jackson. His voice is a bit bleaty at times but that goes with the territory.

The Tennessee Kids rise from below the stage – congas first, shiny as a fire engine, then horns, each player sprouting up behind a little grey lectern, like tombstones in a cartoon haunted house. The string players backstage appear as huge shadows, reminding me of the scary brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

The 20/20 Experience seems an appropriate name for a show that synthesises vast swaths of 20th-century pop culture, from speakeasies to James Bond, Prince to Stevie Wonder, and its recent incarnations in Janelle Monáe and Outkast. There are moments of musical trickery, such as when he folds the last chorus of Jackson’s “Human Nature” into his own song and passes it through a minor key. As he strolls at one end of the arena, John Shuttleworth and friends play Miles Davis’s “So What” casually at the other, as if it were an afterthought.

The crowd seems to be coping well with the high quality of the show: 20,000 people join Timberlake in a rapid-fire falsetto line about drivin’ in the car with the top down. He has won polls for being sexy, though I can’t see it myself – former child stars often remain curiously asexual, especially the males, so high of voice and smooth of skin. He is a pro golfer with a fashion line in what Alan Partridge might call “sports casual” and has endorsement deals with Walmart and Audi. But his recent film roles have played up the idea of unselfconscious dweebery to great effect – the polo-necked folkie in Inside Llewyn Davis, or his part in Bad Teacher, in which he dry-humps Cameron Diaz with a roar and a wet patch on his trousers. His charisma is physical. He does the dance routines, joining his chorus line for that sliding, moonwalky stuff – then breaks into freestyle, helicoptering round like Fred Astaire in Converse trainers.

By the time we get to the Afrobeat song “Let the Groove Get In” (yes, Timberlake also does an Afrobeat song), Motorpoint Arena has turned into a sprawling dance party with every audience member facing a different direction, grooving, wearing a trilby and holding a trombone (OK, not quite).

Where do we go from here, I ask myself, scanning for the exit in panic. Is this not the “whole of music” in one evening? What’s the point in anyone doing another gig, ever? Will the pleasure never end? I glance at my set list and see that Timberlake ends with “Mirrors”, which, I recall, is a particularly good song. Time to get out. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear