Thirty-six years ago, David Byrne and the Talking Heads delivered one of the most acclaimed concert films of all time in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. Now, in 2020, when things seem to make less sense than ever, Byrne has paired up with Spike Lee to deliver a joyous musical performance and the perfect antidote for these trying times.
Riding on the success of his American Utopia album and subsequent Broadway show in 2019, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a filmed version of the stage production, which incorporates most of the “American Utopia” album, along with classic Talking Heads hits like “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “This Must Be the Place.”
More than just a concert, however, American Utopia mixes musical theatre and performance art, with Byrne tying together his loose assemblage of songs with monologues and thoughtful musings about America today.
Gray-haired, gray-suited, and barefoot, Byrne opens American Utopia with “Here,” the final song on his recent album. “Here is an area of great confusion,” the former Talking Heads singer says from a minimalist stage, a model brain poised in his hand. Byrne then points to another area on the brain: “Here is a connection with the opposite side.”
Connection and community are the guiding elements of David Byrne’s American Utopia. It makes sense that Spike Lee chose to be a part of this project. Both Byrne and Lee have, for decades, separately been exploring the ways people connect through art, and both artists’ respective utopias are more similar than might first appear – they are both places where we see each other honestly and truly.
Connectivity is woven into the very fabric of the performance with Byrne backed by 11 international musicians and dancers. All dressed in identical gray suits, they dance, sing, perform and prowl around Byrne, constantly re-staging themselves across the Hudson Theatre’s stark stage. One second they’re all a loose collective, everyone dancing and playing in different directions, together but apart, the next they’re unified in song, all performing in syncopated rhythm. Byrne and his troupe’s choreography is mesmerizing, their dynamism bouncing off of every corner of the stage. As Byrne muses in one of his spoken interludes, watching people is the most interesting thing in the world.
Like the late Jonathan Demme did with Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee isn’t just there to document the stage show but instead to heighten it. Lee, with his small army of camera operators and director of photography, Ellen Kuras, brings an added layer of dynamism to the show for the crowds watching from home. The camera moves to close-ups of Byrne’s face, eyes, and feet, roving over the stage to create an ever-changing tableau of visual splendor. Every aspect of David Byrne’s American Utopia insists that we connect with the music in a communal way, and Lee’s fluid direction helps this idea reverberate through us without distracting from the music.
While there is boundless joy to be seen and heard on stage, there is also an undercurrent of outrage and anxiety running through the loose narrative of the show. The first image to appear on the otherwise bare stage is that of Colin Kaepernick. The performers kneel and Byrne speaks at length about the need to vote. But even Byrne’s stirring words can’t match the power of the group singing a cover of Janelle Monae’s rousing protest anthem, “Hell You Talmbout,” as portraits of black lives lost to US police brutality are shown on screen. Once again, we are urged to look at one another, connect and express. Byrne’s music and Lee’s expert directing work together in stirring harmony to shake people out of complacency. Whether it’s to find joy, outrage, or inspiration, American Utopia invites viewers to find something. In a year when it’s been particularly easy to slide into apathy, experiencing a show as vibrant and alive as this feels all the more impactful.
Byrne pushes us to feel and to connect but he never does so sanctimoniously. He gently guides us into his own brand of psychology but never forgets about the power of music as a unifying force. The show comes to a close with an exuberant curtain-call performance of “Road to Nowhere.” We see Byrne and his band snaking through the theatre’s crowd as everyone sings and moves together in beautiful unison. Earlier in the performance, Byrne addressed the crowd with a “thank you for leaving your homes,” which drips with an irony he couldn’t have imagined at the time. It’s up to us whether the lyrics “We’re on a road to nowhere” sound promising or not, but seeing the audience up on their feet, blissed-out together just as we are from our homes, it’s hard not to read the song’s lyrics optimistically: “There’s a city in my mind/ Come along and take that ride/ And it’s alright, baby, it’s alright/ And it’s very far away/ But it’s growing day by day and it’s alright.” Perhaps we can hope for a utopia after all, even if in the distance.