David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)
Five Stars

After the events of January 6th, 2021, I needed David Byrne’s American Utopia. I’d spent the day suspended in a state of shock, stunned but somehow not surprised. Yesterday bookended four years of malignant demagoguery, a toxic infestation that has destroyed the integrity of one branch of government, only to metastasize within the halls of another. It was difficult to reconcile the country I have long loved–the rollicking young nation that invented rock and roll and put a man on the moon–with the monstrous entity that snarled on every TV channel, a creature spurred into motion by ugly words from an ugly man. Ashamed seems like too small of a description. Crestfallen has a better ring to it. Yes, as this day lurched to a close, I needed American Utopia.

For me, Talking Heads were always a band of joy. And I don’t mean joy like some dippy beatnik dude handing out daisies to irritated pedestrians. No, this joy is about the cleansing power of uninhibited expression: Singing, clapping, stomping, dancing with giddy abandon. Stop Making Sense, the band’s landmark concert film, is the ultimate example of this musical liberation. Unabashedly eccentric songs like “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and “Life During Wartime” pulse with energy and passion–joy in its purest form.

Here then, is American Utopia, which represents a spiritual successor to Stop Making Sense. Directed by Spike Lee, this film has much of Sense‘s same vibrance and theatrical flair. But it also has some key differences: David Byrne, Talking Heads’ cerebral frontman and creative navigator, has long since branched off as a solo act. As such, his setlist gets interspersed with ruminative musings about society, politics, and self-improvement. This gives off the impression that Byrne is older, wiser, but still beset with curiosity and confusion.

The film, which is built around Byrne’s album of the same name, is undeniably a mirror of the times in which it was made: This nation walks a darker, lonelier path than it ever has, something his new material attempts to combat with a sturdy sense of optimism. Indeed, Byrne opens the set with a song called “Here,” while cradling a replica of the human brain. The symbolism couldn’t be stronger: All of our problems and solutions, our pain and potential, they all originate in this tiny piece of real estate. That which divides us could also unite us.

Byrne’s staging is paradoxically minimal and complex at the same time: Dangling silver chains form a perimeter around the stage, through which his backing band can intermittently appear and vanish. There are no visible amps, no mic stands, no cables. This means that the musicians can meander where they like, in an elaborate showcase of choreography and calisthenics. In the hands of Lee and Byrne, the dancing even shows the inspiration of Bob Fosse and Busby Berkeley. There are moments that feel truly cinematic. All of this contributes to a show that is constantly in motion and infectious in energy.

The musicians surrounding Byrne are spry and musically tight, especially given all the physical chores that are being asked of them. Byrne has selected a diverse array of guitarists, drummers, and dancers, imbuing the song arrangements with a well-traveled sound. Although Byrne is pushing 70, he shows an incredible amount of stamina, ably ambling in step with his band and occasionally strumming rhythmic jazz chords on a guitar.

For a setlist, Byrne leans heavily on the newer material. He fills the spaces between songs with snippets of wry philosophy, as if explaining how each number came to be where it is. For the requisite Talking Heads material, Byrne naturally selects a few of their biggest hits. Tracks like “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere” get arrangements that retain their potent catchiness, while also giving them a distinctly modern twist.

One of the evening’s standout tracks is Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest anthem born early in the Black Lives Matter movement. Byrne was and is clearly shaken by racial inequality in this country, something that gives him a strong kinship with Lee. Byrne reads off victims of police brutality, until the list becomes too long to name. It’s certainly one of the evening’s more sobering moments.

Lee’s direction is a perfect balance of sturdy and invisible. He opts for standard stage shots, intercut with bravura overhead sequences and closeups. It’s compelling, showy, but the focus correctly stays on the music throughout.

American Utopia was the perfect end to a lousy day. Byrne’s music felt like rain–rinsing, cleansing, healing. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about what had happened, and about this long national nightmare. But my mind also went to the famous quote from Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I needed the love and light of American Utopia. We all do.

105 min. TV-14. HBOMax.

Author: Todd Wofford

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