It’s hard to think of a more compassionate, warm, and innately humanistic artist
as David Byrne. Long known as the front man for The Talking Heads, one of the
greatest pop acts to come out of the ’80s, Byrne’s always had a sense of the
alien about him — like he’s just beamed down to Earth to study the curious
comings and goings of the odd beings that populate this planet. And in so doing,
he comes away with a sense of empathy and curiosity about us, which manifests in
everything from his bouncy, eclectic songs to films like True Stories and Stop
Making Sense, one of the greatest concert films to ever exist. It’s in the
latter spirit that David Byrne’s American Utopia lives, and it bursts with
enough creativity and compassion to be its equal.
Directed by Spike Lee, American Utopia captures Byrne’s award-winning stage show
over the course of several nights, blending them together into a cohesive whole.
In concept an innovative staging of Byrne and Brian Eno’s 2018 album of the same
name, its 2019 restaging also incorporates some of Byrne’s most famous Talking
Heads tracks, like “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime.” Like Stop
Making Sense, it’s more than just a band playing the hits — it also blends
creative choreography, social commentary, and Byrne’s signature soft-spoken
As with fellow director Jonathan Demme before him, Lee knows that his best
approach to Byrne’s work is to let his unique sense of stagecraft speak for
itself. As such, Lee is dynamic without being showy, curving and cutting around
Byrne and his ensemble of talented musicians — all dressed, as he is, in
three-button grey suits with bare feet — in ways that show off the signature
lighting and minimalist staging of the work. All you see are the performers
curtained by some clear beaded curtains, which are used to evocative effect by
the performers and Anne-B Parson’s hypnotic choreography.
Together they dance and flow like a singular organism, connected to each other
in ways that can only come from months of practice and camaraderie. Each gets
their moment in the spotlight, and Byrne and Lee take care to highlight them
both individually and as a unit in ways that are positively entrancing. Lee
captures small moments of giddy excitement, like when one member winks at the
other, and top-down shots showing the tight formations they group into for some
of the bigger numbers.
The show begins and ends by talking about connections, first in our brain
(singing “Here”, the final song on American Utopia the album) and then each
other. According to Byrne, we never have more neural connections in our brain
than when we’re children. Then, as time goes on and we grow up, those
connections close off, only keeping the ones we use. Implicitly, Byrne wants us
to go back to that childlike stage of being, where we were so full of
possibility. Those connections can be closed off in our brains, but we can build
more in our hearts.
To be sure, American Utopia can be enjoyed as a rousing, energetic concert film
featuring some of the most playful and catchy pop tunes of the last century. But
Byrne grounds these tunes in a sense of humanism: his best songs, after all, can
encapsulate the entire spectrum of human emotion, and Byrne wants to make sure
we recognize that joy and pass it on to our own lives. When he calls on people
to vote, it’s not with the strident finger-wagging that can happen on Twitter,
but with an idealistic faith that, if we all do our part, we can do great
things. The results are more than a concert, less than a theatrical show, and
exactly, to risk a cliché, the movie we need right now.
But his political leanings aren’t restricted to platitudes about our better
selves — images of Colin Kaepernick can be seen early in the film, the
performers kneeling in solidarity. And in the show’s most powerful moment, Byrne
and the band chant through a rousing rendition of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You
Talmbout,” shouting the names of Black victims of police violence (Lee often
cutting away to portraits of the victims, sometimes held by their mothers). It’s
a fist-raising moment of power.
As the show draws to a close, with an acapella rendition of “One Fine Day,”
David Byrne’s American Utopia draws you into its inviting, powerful sense of
community and connection. In the closing minutes, Byrne marches the band through
the crowd to sing it with them, and I was immediately struck by how full the
theater was, how tightly packed the crowds were. And how, thanks to COVID and
the increasingly dispiriting national response to it, none of us may get to
encounter that kind of mass communal experience again. We yearn for that kind of
connection. For that reason and so many more, David Byrne’s American Utopia is
nothing short of pure, necessary magic. This is a perfect collaboration, and one
of the best live concerts on film.