David Byrne’s American Utopia
Whether you’re a devoted fan of Talking Heads who cried into your pillow for a decade after they disbanded in the early 90s, or you haven’t heard of their former frontman David Byrne – let alone his latest solo album American Utopia – the singer-songwriter’s joyous cinematic collaboration with the legendary Spike Lee may well entice you to delve into his discography. This concert film, a live recording of Byrne’s hit Broadway show, is meticulously composed for all eyes and ears.
The performance itself sits somewhere between a gig and a musical: it’s got the intimacy of the former and the sleek cohesive choreography the latter. Byrne, in a characteristic clean-cut grey suit and shirt, is joined by 11 band members in the same attire, a dozen concrete-coloured clones. And yet, the cast are remarkably lithe, their lack of shoes playfully undermining the formal dress code. In fact, as the artist assures his audience, he wants this to be casual and stripped back, hence the lack of any props save for the plastic brain he clutches in the opening track. “Are we getting stupider and stupider?” he posits, setting the tone with wonderfully dry humour.
It’s a testament to the filmmaker that it feels as if we, too, are being addressed. Lee’s footage takes us right up to the artist, close-ups granting us exclusive access that even paying ticketholders have been denied. Beautiful birdseye shots display the symmetry and shadows of the musicians. A veil of luminous chains surrounds the stage, and the director makes us part of the show, positioning viewers in front of Byrne as he approaches the curtain, glowing blue, and behind him as he reverses like a rewinding tape. When he introduces the ensemble – a refreshingly diverse assortment of musicians hailing from around the world – we can greet them face to face. It’s as immersive for us as for the audience members in the front row, who are already up and dancing by the second song.
It’s easy to see why they are so spirited: the soundtrack is a rich symphony laced with African beats, funk-fuelled base and soaring falsetto. Within a setlist that encompasses the eponymous record, we are treated to a few Talking Heads classics – Burning Down the House lives up to its title – and a sprinkling of a capella numbers with tight harmonies and timely messages. Indeed, what separates this from your usual concert is the statement it makes, and it’s here where Lee and Byrne’s vision converges to spectacular effect. A cover of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout invokes many of the black victims of police shootings in the US, intercut with footage of loved ones holding up photographs. The physical audience are implored to shout out their names, while we at home are shown their faces. It’s art at its most democratic.
The film is a triumph of innovation in the name of accessibility. In the final scenes, Lee transports Byrne’s streamlined score out of the theatre and quite literally onto the streets as we ride with the cast on their bikes into the city. The pair are inviting us to share in their creation, their as-yet unrealised American utopia.
David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on digital download on 14th December 2020 and on DVD on 11th January 2021.
Watch the trailer for David Byrne’s American Utopia here: