Director of Luther Vandross film says it’s so much more than a music doc

For more than four decades, Luther Vandross has been recognized for his silky tenor and doo-wop-inspired runs with tender lyrics about romantic love and joy. He sold more than 40 million records worldwide, 13 of his albums went platinum, and he became a solid favorite among Black listeners.

Still, the R&B superstar — known to fans simply as “Luther” or “Luffa” — wanted to grow his fanbase and achieve crossover success. Vandross’ commitment to music is celebrated in “Luther: Never Too Much,” the first full-length documentary to chronicle the life and career of the multitalented performer, who died in 2005 at age 54 following complications from a stroke two years prior.

The film is directed by award-winning filmmaker Dawn Porter and is premiering as an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21.

“Having the opportunity to tell the story about one of our greatest vocalists ever and give him the recognition that he should’ve had in life is surreal,” said Porter, a two-time Sundance alumna. “It’s so much more than a music doc, and that means everything to me.”

In a departure from her more politically themed documentaries, Porter weaves together the eight-time Grammy winner’s memorable songbook with fond memories from his immediate family, close friends, musicians, collaborators, staff, background vocalists and executives.

“I wanted people who knew him really well and who could tell you what it was like when he was not performing,” Porter said. “I was really focused on his lyrics and who he was as a person, and I couldn’t wait to dive into that. We just took off from there, and it just came together.”

Porter distilled 80 hours of performance clips, 150 hours of archival footage and 2,200 stills into 101 minutes in which she portrays the vocalist behind “Here and Now,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” “Any Love,” and “Dance With My Father” as a loving, determined and humorous professional who was dedicated to his craft.

Vandross made his national television debut on “Sesame Street” in 1969. The Bronx, New York, native was a studio rat who became a hired gun for David Bowie, Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand and Chic.

Those sessions led to commercial jingles, which funded Vandross’ double platinum major label debut LP, “Never Too Much,” in 1981. Vandross became a sought-after songwriter, producer and vocal arranger, who went on to produce for Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.

“He was in so many places, and that is so often the story of our people,” Porter said. “We’re in so many places but not visible in those spaces. This film is pulling him into the light.”

The documentary doesn’t shy away from his loneliness, struggles with his weight, food addiction, probing questions about his sexuality, post-traumatic stress resulting from a near fatal auto accident in 1986 and rumors about death and having AIDS.

Ged Doherty, co-founder of Raindog Films along with actor Colin Firth, and Trish D. Chetty had been attempting to make a Vandross project since 2015.

“He brought us so much joy growing up,” Chetty said, “but at the same time, he had many personal struggles. It was important to address those things but not make them central to the story.”

Porter, whose company, Trilogy Films, came onboard in the summer of 2022, wanted the production to be as collaborative as Vandross became in his career. Director of photography Bryan Gentry gave the interviews an opulent color scheme and Porter sat with musician Robert Glasper in the studio as he composed the score.

“We would watch a scene, and I would score right in front of them on the spot,” Glasper said. “We get the best results when those people are in the room as part of the process. They knew the vibes and were very easy to work with.”

Jamie Foxx and his producing partner, Datari Turner, joined the film as executive producers with Raindog Films, which acquired stage and screen rights from Vandross’ estate and its estate partner, Primary Wave Music.

“His music is timeless and still holds up today,” said Turner, who’s had 11 premieres at Sundance. “The film is made to remind people how great he is, and you want to give people their flowers. We wanted to make something that the culture could be proud of and for young people to realize how special he was.”

Big Jon Platt, also an executive producer, said he appreciates Vandross turned covers like “A House Is Not a Home,” “Endless Love” and “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” into his own standards.

“He had the melody with strong lyrics but knew another great song,” Platt said. “It’s really remarkable for someone to have that level of consistency, and people will learn what it is he accomplished.”

Porter says she’s excited for viewers to learn more about Vandross through the film.

“Even though he died so young and tragically, his life was really a celebration of art, friendship and love,” Porter said. “I can’t wait for people to see this. This is a present for all of his fans and the people who don’t know they’re about to become fans. It’s very special.”