American Utopia, 2020.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Starring David Byrne, Jaqueline Acevedo, and Gustavo di Dalva.
Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.
On the face of things, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and director Spike Lee are hardly the most natural fit for an artistic pairing – one an optimistic, oddball existentialist, the other a righteously angry agitator – yet their fusion of forms proves most fortuitous in this riveting, toe-tapping concert film which should appeal wide beyond Byrne’s card-carrying fandom.
Byrne and his small troupe of performers take to the stage – barefoot, surprisingly – for a conceptual concert film-cum-performance piece based on his 2019 Broadway show, which melds a presentation of his 2018 album of the same name – his first solo album in 14 years, in fact – with a slew of classic Talking Heads tracks.
What even non-fans will appreciate from minute one is Byrne’s tenacity as a showman. Beyond mere musical aptitude he spices witty parlance between the songs, commenting on subjects as disparate as human neural pathways, dating apps, the dada “nonsense” movement, the utility of TV, inclusion, and voting.
It’d certainly be easy for such a smattering of segues to feel discursive – and, worst of all, soak up time we’d rather he devote to music – but Byrne’s thoughtful, often self-deprecating asides generally compliment the songs, brief as they are.
As a stage show, American Utopia isn’t particularly showy at all, focused more on minimalist presentation with little more than a few suited-up dancers and musicians accompanying Byrne on a sheer grey stage. It’s an intentional flourish which Byrne actually addresses during the show, stating that he wanted to bring humanity to the fore while pushing theatrical embellishments to the wayside. And yet, the sheer magnetism of the frontman and his team is so that you’ll hardly miss the pomp.
As for the music, it’s tough to pick a single show-stopper because it’s pretty much wall-to-wall with bass-thumping bangers. From “Slippery People,” to “Once In a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and finally “Road to Nowhere,” most of the expected hits are there and deliver above and beyond what anyone familiar with Byrne’s live show will expect.
Perhaps the most singularly stirring performance in the show, however, is a jaw-dropping rendition of Janelle Monae’s mighty protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which bellows the names of various black Americans who have died by racial violence (typically perpetrated by the police).
In one of the few moments where Lee’s direction draws attention to itself, he leaps in to flash up deeply moving epitaphs of the fallen; a stunning tribute to those lost – including, most recently, George Floyd – yet one lithe enough not to detract from the show’s overall feel-good vibe. During a version of his and St. Vincent’s song “I Should Watch TV,” we also catch a glimpse of Colin Kaepernick on the screen behind them, while the assembled performers take a knee.
Lee’s coverage of the show is, unsurprisingly, spectacular, though also generally non-intrusive, capturing the vibrancy of the music and physicality of the dance without self-aggrandisement. The splashiest it ever really gets is some occasional overhead photography, and silky smooth close-ups gliding effortlessly across the stage. It is exactly what it needs to be, and fits the show’s minimalist through-line like a glove.
Best of all, you needn’t be overly familiar with Byrne or Talking Heads to enjoy this – though it will obviously be pure catnip to die-hards. The 105-minute show absolutely flies by, courtesy of both Byrne’s dulcet tones and a generally hopeful, humanistic tenor which makes for quite the spiritual salve in our beleaguered present – doubly so given that most of us haven’t been to a live concert in a good while.
A glorious, slyly affecting call for global connection during one of the strangest, most alienating years in recent human history, as expertly presented by Spike Lee. What more could you want? Blast it on the best sound system you can find.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.