It’s tempting to say this about any piece of media that brings even a semblance of joy during this terrible year, but David Byrne’s American Utopia genuinely feels like a balm. The stage show, which ran from late 2019 to early 2020 at New York’s Hudson Theatre, exists somewhere between a concert and a musical. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2020 online edition, the film adaptation, directed by Spike Lee, is a fascinating deconstruction of live performance, emphasizing negative visual space and human connection over pyrotechnics.
As Byrne takes the stage, the recollection of Jonathan Demme’s equally joyous 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense is plain, what with the simple stage assemblage and costuming. It’s perhaps a reminder of how things have and haven’t changed in the time since. But while the original stage show and this film adaptation are absolutely in conversation with Stop Making Sense, Lee still makes it feel distinct. He applies his own visual stamp and a more intimate setup, especially as the show draws closer to its conclusion. He privileges Byrne’s audience with unique angles afforded by the camera, getting close-ups, providing new views of the choreography via aerial shots, and generally making this a cinematic experience rather than simply a filmed show. He adds flair to Byrne’s minimalist sensibilities.
For his part, Byrne is the same as he ever was — humanist, good-humored and often a little self-deprecating, and most of all egalitarian. He’s the focal point of an ensemble, rather than an all-consuming presence. He’s still trying to make sense of the world through Dadaist art, world music, close friends and collaborators, and his audience. The big questions he asks about the American state of being in between the songs provide new context for everything from classics like “Burning Down the House” and of course “Once in a Lifetime” to modern collaborations like “I Should Watch TV” (written with Annie Clark, aka St Vincent) or a retooling of X-Press Z’s house track “Lazy.” Some numbers are updated dissections of modern living, while others are more focused on finding joy in showmanship. “Looking at people? That’s the best,” Byrne says as “This Must Be the Place” thunders to life.
For all of American Utopia’s joy in revisiting these classics, it also has surprising urgency, full of calls to action, specifically around contemporary Black protest. Colin Kaepernick appears on screen as Byrne and his band take a knee and raise their fists, and one of the closing numbers is a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.” That protest song first came out in 2015, and lists some of the Black people killed, mostly by police, up until the point she performed it. Here it’s updated to include a few names from this year alone: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. The most telling sign of Lee’s presence is the confrontational construction of this performance, cutting it with scenes of protests featuring people holding gaze with the viewer, carrying placards and pictures of these stolen lives, with many more names in bold red text that engulf the screen.
The term “American Utopia” is knowingly oxymoronic. A lot of the show is dedicated to wondering how things can be fixed, if they ever will be. But at the same time, it’s hard to watch Byrne’s warm and humanistic performance without grinning from ear to ear. The American Utopia doesn’t exist, but for a couple of hours, the possibility feels a little more hopeful. Even such temporary escapism and affirmation is more than welcome.
American Utopia is currently playing as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres on HBO October 17.
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