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REVIEW – “American Utopia”: Sensical Words for a Nonsensical Time

David Byrne is a human with many talents, and two wide eyes to see the world through a lens of righteousness and near-dystopian optimism. His lyrics have always proved a testament to that nature; more often nowadays, if one asks in a figurative manner “how did I get here?”, or “my god, what have I done?” the reasoning couldn’t be clearer. Much greater than his 80s heyday, perhaps. Collaborating with the always ingenious Spike Lee on a filmed production of his stage show American Utopia is a chance to burrow deeper into that reasoning, be more analytical in that musical prose, and perhaps be the unexpected antithesis of hope and clarity in a year where a faux apocalypse might not be that far off.

Byrne is no stranger to utilizing cinematic storytelling to a borderline unorthodox level. How could anyone forget the blissful enthusiasm between him and his Talking Heads bandmates in a packed Los Angeles theater in Stop Making Sense? Or his idyllic display of small-town Americana in True Stories? To step into his Utopia is to take a walk within his inner consciousness, and leave out the other side with a grin, constantly moving ahead with short stops along the way.

Maintaining a firm sense of familiarity, Byrne once again pushes the Orwellian gray-colored suit of his past, with his bandmates matching the look in barefooted solidarity. With instruments on their backs or over shoulders, they are 100% mobilized on their rather modest-sized stage that looks smaller in overhead shots. None of them are stationary or plugged into a loud amp; the advancements we’ve made on that corner of the technology front are nothing short of breathtaking. All that exists on that stage is 12 humans, expressing humanistic pride through mere movement.

It begins strong with a chorus of Byrne’s own solo work, with his most recent album serving as the foreground, a genuine potpourri of multiple sonic regions merging to a singular impetus, that nostalgic “new wave” spirit never faded away. No more than eight Talking Heads songs are weaved into the story, thankfully not to the point where they are deemed necessary to keep an audience engaged. How big hits most will know like “Road to Nowhere”, “This Must Be the Place”, and the forever open to interpretation “Once in a Lifetime”, work their way around newer tunes like “Everybody’s Coming to My House” so fluidly? It’s rare essential magic only a diverse and daring songwriter can possess.

Byrne is as staunch, sharp, and risible a narrator as they come, instantly setting that “don’t stop moving” attitude before a packed audience during his show’s sold-out Broadway engagement last fall. Mr. Lee may be the director here, capturing this performance as only he can with all his usual flourishes, against the mild limitations he inherits from the theater itself. Only he could match Byrne’s perception of humanity at every beat, the cataclysm of their creativity impossible to match. But it’s still really Byrne’s show through and through, his method to madness insurmountable.

For Spike, his own controlled chaos comes in keeping the film grounded to only the smallest shroud of reality, reminding us of the America we’re living in right now, or at least the America we were hanging onto before the present pandemic radically changed every waking moment. Of course, that New York audience attitude is front and center, they’re connecting to Byrne’s every word and footstep like a preacher to a congregation.

The city itself is the cornerstone of the American dream, in two shades. The old-school adage where we’re all immigrants looking for a new home and Scottish-born Byrne doesn’t waste a moment emphasizing that while placing an arm over his Brazilian drum captain Mauro Refosco. And the modernized, fractured version exposing the flaws in our society, and the radical social change. The latter is formally immortalized as the bandmates take a unified kneel after the musical cadence is rewritten on the spot. As they cover Janelle Monae’s bitingly livid “Hell You Talmbout” while Spike nobly cuts to the names and faces of multiple lives taken away in the wrong hands, while proclaiming to “say their name”, Byrne is performing the most indicative of 180s. Not just on the audience, but certainly on himself.

Even with the subtle nods to his first career peak, then riding high on that Reagan-era positivity, American Utopia plays to both Byrne’s and Lee’s strengths in that it can elevate past the lows of 2020 in the most deliberate of hat tricks. One of the multiple ways the pair manage to echo the utter brilliance Byrne and Jonathan Demme effused, almost by accident on Stop Making Sense. But in no way does it necessarily overshadow that still rock-solid delight, leaving the bar for all concert films since a bit too high to surpass. The dynamics are altered in that Byrne’s the key figure in a band of sorts. Here, he is the leader of an equalized ensemble, the star of the show headlining the concept sprung from an admirable solo album. It has the energetic feel of a concert, albeit in a confined space by which the intimacy Byrne carries to his crowd can easily translate to home viewings. Some finite moments of call and response where Lee, his editor Adam Gough (Da 5 Bloods), and his DoP Ellen Kuras (Rolling Thunder Revue) occasionally cut to the captive lookers-on like they were a census group. David judging only 20% of them are registered to vote, pointing the finger of possible improvement squarely on the viewer. And the message it strives to send, abstract as it appears, that idea of improving the American dream through compassion, must settle with speaking best to the right now, and perhaps the next day.

Unlike Sense, where its raw musicality warrants further study even 35 years later, it really is too soon to assume that same promise could apply to American Utopia. Surely Spike knows what he and David were wanting to say here, and that is exactly what makes Utopia a sure-fire concert winner. Playing beneath the mighty gauntlet of a more foregone period of our existence, the never-changing grandfather of genuine hipster culture has evolved in such a way that it would be a shock to have his professions not make sense. Here, they couldn’t make more sense to our current lens on humanity. Byrne is among a certain breed of sillier humans just looking to make America, and the world at large, not so much great as it could be better than it was the day before, all by putting peaceful protest to music, the way it should be. The next best thing to experiencing this benchmark of music on film this weekend on HBO must be a visit to New York next year. God willing as we navigate our present road to nowhere, we will all get there eventually. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

David Byrne’s American Utopia debuts on HBO and HBO Max Saturday, October 17; 105 minutes.