NYFF 58: “David Byrne’s American Utopia” is an explosion of music and humanism

David Byrne's American Utopia David Lee/HBO

Spike Lee captures all the vibrancy and social import of Byrne’s acclaimed Broadway show, and it’s a joy to watch.

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(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

It’s hard to think of a more compassionate, warm, and innately humanistic artist as David Byrne. Long known as the frontman 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 zapped 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 wisdom. The results are more than a concert, less than a theatrical show, and exactly, to risk a cliche, the movie we need right now.

David Byrne's American Utopia
David Lee/HBO

As with fellow Spool Filmmaker of the Month 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 cliche, 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). I watched this the night before the Breonna Taylor verdict, and in that moment of despair, I felt that plea for empathy and understanding Byrne and the cast throw to their audience. It’s a fist-raising moment of power.

As the show draws to a close, with an a capella 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.

I yearn for that kind of connection, and so do many others. For that reason and so many more, David Byrne’s American Utopia is nothing short of pure, necessary magic.

David Byrne’s American Utopia dances its way into your heart and on HBO October 17th.

David Byrne’s American Utopia Trailer:

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