David Byrne’s American Utopia (Review)

Over 36 years ago, Talking Heads teamed up with acclaimed director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) to produce Stop Making Sense. This masterpiece is not only frequently viewed as the best concert film of all time, it is also one of the highlights of 20th Century cinema. Now, in 2020, the ex-frontman of Talking Heads, David Byrne, has teamed up with another acclaimed filmmaker, Spike Lee (this being his second film of 2020 after Da 5 Bloods, and his best), to create a filmed version of his celebrated musical stage show, America Utopia.

Much like Stop Making Sense, this is more than just a filmed concert: it feels truly cinematic. Also, like Stop Making Sense, it is a masterpiece. With American Utopia, David Byrne takes us on a journey – with clear narrative beats – that rises towards a hugely emotional climax. The staging is phenomenal, the music is great and the combination is pure magic.

American Utopia starts with David Byrne cradling a brain, this then leads – after the opening song – into a monologue about brains and how they work, and how the number of connections in our brains drops over time. This interesting observations becomes the narrative, and metaphorical, backdrop for this show. This, strictly speaking, is not a piece of narrative cinema, it is a musical show – an elevated concert; it does, however, have an arc and a thematic through line. Byrne builds on this idea of diminishing internal connections (in the brain) but focuses in on the concept of human connection, and emotional connection. This point is made through stage patter – a number of precise and perfectly delivered monologues – but also through the staging.

Though it is very reminiscent of the avant-garde minimalism of a Talking Heads show, the staging here is really unique. Throughout the whole show, we only have a flat, square stage – a stark grey. Around the stage are chainlink metal curtains through which the band enter and exit. This makes the whole show feel fluid, open and spontaneous – but also precise and focused. The minimalism also extends to costuming, all on stage (and it is a decent ensemble) wear grey suits (a la Stop Making Sense) and have bare feet. It is presents a striking simplicity that evokes a universal humanity that is reflected by the film, but also treated in a way that doesn’t feel reductive or silencing.

Another brilliant choice is the lack of equipment. The show is about human connection and hope, about the need for people to come together and how that makes us who we are – and unleashes our potential. This artistic journey has some very cerebral and human moments, sometimes achieved through monologue but often achieved through the performance itself (the art speaking with philosophical clarity). There is a big band on stage performing this, moving around in a carefully choreographed manner, but there are no amps or wires. The instruments being used are held by the band or are strapped to them, with as little on show as possible. This highlights the human but also allows for much more freedom and creativity.

The show is more than just a concert, it is a piece of contemporary theatre in its own right. Every song has a carefully orchestrated routine, and the show even has a clear style – with recurring motifs and echoing moments. The performers move beautifully and hypnotically, perfectly attuned to the music. So much of the show is about uniform and celebratory movement; again, the themes are expressed through performance as much as they are through the spoken word. This visual spectacle is then further highlighted by Spike Lee’s camera.

The cinematography is fluid and exciting. Lee’s camera has unfettered access, bringing us right on the stage and moving us alongside the band, before dropping us into the audience or positioning us far above the stage. This freedom is thematically appropriate as well as thrilling, and does a great job of capturing the energy of the performance. This is where the work’s status as a film comes into effect also. Theatre and film speak differently and, through intelligent filmmaking, Lee manages to make this stage show speak cinematically. The language is the language of cinema, using filmic grammar to bring the stage to life.

Overall, the compositions are amazing. The choreography is sublime and the camera is focused on how best to highlight it, whilst also trying to match the musical momentum. There are so many moments of sheer beauty, making endlessly imaginative use of the constrained setting. A later scene involving giant shadows is just astonishing but every track has at least one jaw dropping, purely visual moment. At points, the camera work is a touch too much. There are points of cinematic flair that distract, and maybe a few too many shots from the back of the stage when you want to see what the audience can see (especially when Byrne is speaking) and the close-ups, on occasion, come too frequently and we lose a sense of the choreography. On the whole, though, the visual treatment is sublime.

Of course, the whole thing only works because of the music. And the music is outstanding. It is an eclectic mix but a thematically consistent one. There are Byrne originals, Talking Heads staples and even an astounding cover of Janell Monae’s Hell You Talmbout. This song is precisely, and importantly, contextualised and is the most powerful moment of a very powerful show. Spike Lee uses extra footage and on screen text to add force to an already unbelievably powerful message. It is an important song staged with energy, fury and regret – the storming percussion and collaborative vocals (yelled out for all to hear) leaving an indelible mark on the viewer.

One could zoom in on any track though and find something exceptional. This truly is a wonderful show and the filmic treatment does it justice. The overall show is very intelligent but also playful and witty, showing real talent and gracious humility. It also is deeply collaborative and necessarily diverse. Once again, it is about coming together and Byrne repeatedly returns to the diversity of the band – introducing them and where they are from in an unforgettable sequence. He proudly points out that they are mostly immigrants and makes a powerful proclamation about voting. This is a political work but it is above all else a humanist one. Everything feeds together to make this perfect expression of connection and humanity, and it feels necessary and beautiful. It is knowing enough to never feel clichéd but sincere enough to truly land. It is masterful.

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