David Byrne’s American Utopia – movie review

While music videos are often a stepping stone to bigger things, the concert film is another level. Ever since Martin Scorsese helmed The Last Waltz in 1978, many acclaimed filmmakers have tried their hand at this niche genre. And now it’s Spike Lee’s turn as he weaves his magic around David Byrne’s American Utopia.

Byrne is, of course, the former frontman of Talking Heads. So, in a way, this can be considered a companion piece to Jonathan Demme’s seminal Stop Making Sense (1984). And the two films obviously share a lot of DNA. Since Talking Heads broke up, Byrne has pursued a path that melds music with theatre. That shines through here, as American Utopia employs a loose narrative structure more suited to theatre than a rock concert. That he adds theatrical flourishes (with more than a hint of Bertolt Brecht) only heightens the experience.

Lee however isn’t content to merely film a concert (or theatrical performance). He injects himself into the film, particularly towards the end where many of his stylistic hallmarks appear. His approach gives the film audience a different perspective, one that wouldn’t be available to someone in the audience at the Hudson Theatre in New York on the night the performance was filmed.

The film opens with Byrne sitting at a small table holding a model of a human brain (yep, a brain). This leads him into the first song, “Here”, from his 2018 album, also titled American Utopia. From there, the cast expands to include 11 other musicians joining him on stage. Everyone wears the same grey suit, and everyone is barefoot. In true Byrne style, their movements are highly choreographed; but they somehow manage to feel spontaneous.

The set is a minimalist marvel, consisting of a bare stage (its meaning is explained later) surrounded by ceiling-to-floor lengths of silver chain that form the “walls”. The musicians use this apparently prosaic space in increasingly imaginative ways.

One thing Byrne can’t escape is his audience’s expectations. The show includes many songs from Byrne’s solo career. But it’s clear the crowd are there for the “old stuff”. Although Byrne performs a couple of more obscure Talking Heads tracks early, the audience really come alive when he does a rollicking rendition of “Once in a Lifetime”  – complete with convulsive dancing. I suspect for Byrne – and also Lee – the need to perform those songs (to pay the bills, as it were) is something of a distraction. Through some clever dialogue and song selection, the show evolves into something far more than just a collection of pop tunes.

The hint is in the title. Can anyone imagine an American Utopia anymore? If so, what would it look like? And what would need to change about the country to achieve this utopian vision?

The final scenes of the movie – which happen outside the confines of the show – are some of the most joyful and uplifting you’ll see this year. And make sure you sit all the way through the credits for more of that exuberance.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is, in many ways, transcendent. Put it this way, I’m not a particular fan of Byrne’s music, but I loved it. If you have even the slightest interest in music or live theatre or Spike Lee, don’t miss this film.

David Edwards

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