‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ Review — A Vibrant Display of Artistry and Optimism

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American Utopia Review

Talking Heads front man David Byrne has been a cultural icon for over 40 years, infusing various musical styles with a unique pop sensibility that defies simple classification. The last time David Byrne took a stage show before cameras the result was 1984’s Stop Making Sense, the concert film directed by Jonathan Demme that is widely considered one of the best concert films ever made. Once again, Byrne takes an incredible stage show and teams with a legendary director to order to capture it before the cameras with David Byrne’s American Utopia. Directed by the great Spike Lee, American Utopia is the 2019 Broadway show that Byrne staged, a sort of retrospective of the musician’s career sprinkled with amusing monologues between songs. American Utopia is a triumph in every conceivable facet. For nearly two hours, I was rapt by a dazzling display of light and choreography set to Byrne’s music, new and old, while brimming with a sense of joy that practically seems foreign right now.

The show opens with David Byrne sitting at a desk in the center of a sparse stage. He begins singing “Here,” from his 2018 album also titled American Utopia, while holding onto a lone prop – a replica brain. The first few songs of American Utopia build slowly in a manner somewhat similar to the opening of Stop Making Sense. Byrne is joined by his accompanying musicians and dancers as the stage begins to take shape. With each successive song the show gets better and better, expanding its scope musically and visually.

“Don’t Worry About the Government” is the first song that really presents the full inventiveness on display in the show, and Spike Lee’s camera eschews simply capturing the stage from the audience’s perspective. The meticulous choreography and dazzling light display is sometimes captured in a way that those in the live audience could never see, but it clearly illustrates that Byrne was never thinking of his stage show as a two dimensional display. Spike Lee’s impeccable direction captures every astonishing aspect of the show – the lighting, the music, the choreography, and the underlying joy that fuels the heart of American Utopia.

Like the opening, there are many echoes of Stop Making Sense in American Utopia. But American Utopia isn’t a nostalgia trip. It doesn’t deny the past nor does it live solely through it. Byrne goes through his back catalogue but not simply to “shut up and play the hits,” as plenty of the Talking Heads songs chosen aren’t exactly the major hits. Each time you think there’s nothing new that Byrne and company could present to dazzle you they find something new, and Lee ensures these moments are presented in the most cinematic way possible. The blocking for each shot and the symmetry between the players on the stage invoke memories of Bob Fosse’s incredible direction for the concert film Liza with a Z. In that grand tradition of Fosse, David Byrne and Spike Lee bring American Utopia to your screen in a manner that seems at once classical in design and radical in presentation.

Between songs, Byrne shares anecdotes and observations about his life and the world. Sometimes they’re just the quirky thoughts that one might expect from the front man of the Talking Heads. Other times, though, Byrne raises serious topics such as voting, climate change, and race relations. Of course, there will be those that demand that Byrne “stick to singing” but even the political asides are rather brief and inoffensive to most reasonable people. If there’s one segment that’s going to rankle American conservatives, it’ll be Byrne’s rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a blistering explosion of percussion where the names of black Americans killed by police (or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a vigilante) are shouted in righteous anger. During this song as each name is uttered, Lee cuts away to a picture of the slain individual, the only time in which Lee’s camera veers away from the events unfolding on the stage of the Hudson Theater. Even with this obviously political sequence, there’s no way I’d describe as American Utopia as an overtly political work.

Over the summer, Hamilton dropped on Disney+ and for its greatness really showed the limitations that come with filming a staged performance. None of those limitations appear in David Byrne’s American Utopia, and that’s testament to enduring ingenuity of David Byrne as a performer and Spike Lee as filmmaker. Between this and Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee is having an incredible 2020 with two of the best films of the year. Each film this year is unique and original as well as unmistakably the work of Spike Lee. American Utopia is such a fresh, vibrant, and hopeful display of artistry, a balm for the soul when it feels like despair is in abundance.

David Byrne's American Utopia
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

Talking Heads front man David Byrne and legendary director Spike Lee unite to bring Byrne’s American Utopia to the screen in a mesmerizing display of artistry.

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