By Stephanie Ornelas
If audience members didn’t know Luther Vandross before watching Dawn Porter’s film Luther: Never Too Much, they surely know him now.
The intimate documentary had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Theatre on January 21, and audiences delivered a standing ovation, many with tears in their eyes. Through never-before-seen interviews and footage of Vandross’ stellar performances, audiences got a front-row seat to his life, his legacy, his triumphs, and his struggles.
Back in 2015, producer Ged Doherty was in South Africa making a movie when he heard Vandross’ music everywhere he went.
“On the radio, in shops, in restaurants, in cars. One of the few artists allowed on the radio at that time was Luther,” explains Doherty. So he called up producer Trish D Chetty and told her that they had to make a film about the musician’s life. He then got in touch with Vandross’ family and Porter.
When one audience member asked the film team what they thought Vandross’ legacy was, Porter directed the question over to songwriter Fonzi Thornton, who said, “[Luther] is the poster child of anyone who has a dream. And he always was a visionary. The first time I met him, I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He was determined to take those skills and create the music that he has.”
While the film delves into Vandross’ musical career — something that brought him immense joy, it also explores how he struggled with the media’s constant obsession with his weight. Documentary footage of interviews shows an uncomfortable Vandross as he’s being questioned by news outlets about his outer appearance and even his sexuality, and they were fixated on the fact that he never married. It’s harrowing to witness, especially since Vandross is portrayed in the film as a caring friend, a dedicated musician, and a loving family member. That was part of his legacy.
“Luther’s legacy is love,” says singer and songwriter Robin Clark, who spent many years making music with Vandross. “We met as kids, and we loved each other from the day we met — 55 years of love. At the end of the day, his music spoke for him. Love wins, and he knew that. I say his dream for all of us would just be to continue to try to love each other even through the arguments.”
“I thought I loved Luther Vandross a lot. I think [this film] proved me wrong. I love him more now after seeing this than I have ever loved him before,” says musician Carlos Alomar, who was in a musical group in the late ‘60s with Vandross, Thornton, and Clark, called Listen My Brother.
Alomar continues, “We all travel a path in this odyssey called life, and sometimes we travel that path until that fork in the road. One takes a left; one takes a right. This family you see here, Luther Vandross put us together. This is a legacy. No matter if Lisa sings, if I play, we’re all still part of the Luther legacy. And for each of you who shed that tear today, you just became part of our family.”
Immediately after the screening, audience members at Eccles were surprised with a tribute performance by singers Lisa Fischer and Kevin Owens, who performed three of Vandross’ songs, including the hit single, “Never Too Much.” Festivalgoers jumped to their feet, clapping and dancing — that’s the power of Vandross’ music. Once you hear it, you simply won’t want it to stop.
To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.
Audience members at Eccles Theatre were surprised with a tribute performance by Nat Adderley, Jr., Lisa Fischer, Kevin Owens, Paulette McWilliams, and Tawatha Agee after the world premiere of “Luther: Never Too Much.” (Photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock)