Growing up, Luther Vandross’ voice served as the soundtrack to countless childhoods. With his smooth, soulful melodies, he captured the hearts of Black millennials across the nation. His impact was undeniable, and his music continues to resonate with people of all ages. In the documentary “Luther: Never Too Much,” director Dawn Porter takes us on a journey through Vandross’ life, from his humble beginnings to his rise to stardom.
Vandross’ love for music was cultivated in the culturally rich environment of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Influenced by legendary artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, he honed his craft alongside childhood friends in the group Listen My Brother. This early experience not only provided him with critical acclaim but also immersed him in a collective ambition that pushed him to develop his skills.
A pivotal moment in Vandross’ career came during a studio session with David Bowie. His rearrangement of the title track “Young Americans” showcased his artistic range and introduced a gospel-inspired chorus that redefined the song’s groove. This collaboration not only solidified Vandross’ position as a creative force but also gave him the confidence to step out of his comfort zone stylistically.
While Vandross enjoyed success and admiration, he also faced numerous challenges throughout his career. Racism in the industry manifested in the form of limited budgets for recording time, production, and promotional materials. He was often typecast as an “R&B” artist with no crossover appeal, despite incorporating elements of pop, jazz, and theater into his music. Additionally, resonating with young millennial audiences proved to be a challenge that Vandross worked hard to overcome while staying true to his signature style.
Beyond his incredible voice, Vandross was also a human being with struggles and vulnerabilities. The documentary sheds light on the intense media scrutiny and fat-shaming he experienced due to his fluctuating weight. Jokes about his appearance became routine, causing damage to his mental health and exacerbating his challenges with compulsive overeating. Vandross’ private life was also subject to constant rumors and speculation, particularly regarding his sexuality. He maintained a strict level of secrecy, refusing to feed into people’s assumptions, but struggled to find lasting off-stage romance and companionship.
Dawn Porter’s documentary paints a holistic portrait of Luther Vandross, capturing both the highs and lows of his life and career. Through interviews and artist narration, the director allows Vandross to share his story in his own words, giving him autonomy and agency. Close friends and collaborators provide additional insight, revealing the vulnerable dimensions of a man who carefully compartmentalized his public and private selves.
Porter’s approach to the documentary not only highlights Vandross’ artistry but also provides meaningful context about the music industry and its institutions. Whether one is familiar with Vandross’ work or not, the film presents a compelling case to appreciate his contributions to music and culture. For longtime fans, the documentary serves as an ode, evoking nostalgia while challenging assumptions and inviting audiences to revisit and rediscover the magic of Luther Vandross’ timeless music.
The documentary “Luther: Never Too Much” takes us on a captivating journey through the life and legacy of Luther Vandross. It explores the challenges he faced, the impact of his music, and the personal struggles behind his public persona. Vandross’ story is one of talent, resilience, and the enduring power of his voice. His music continues to touch the hearts of millions, and his influence on Black millennial childhoods will never fade away.