Film Review: ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ Is a Much-Needed Antidote

by Alexander C. Kafka

David Byrne’s artistry has always had a living-room intimacy, reflected in the delightful cover photos of the 1982 double-live album The Name of This Band Is the Talking Heads. In the midst of a pandemic, inviting him into our space — or being invited into his — is exactly the therapy the world needs.

American Utopia is Spike Lee’s film of Byrne’s 2019 Broadway show, which was itself derived from a concert tour off his 2018 album. That included 10 tracks lasting shy of 40 minutes. The Broadway show has 21 tracks at 90 minutes, wrapping in decades of hits and lesser-known tunes from Talking Heads and solo projects. 

The work is political without stridency, with Byrne celebrating the cast’s immigrant origins, urging the audience to vote, and pulling in “Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monae’s protest song against racist and police violence. Like the upside-down poster lettering of the word “Utopia,” the production is tensely, tentatively optimistic — the implicit message being that America remains deeply, spasmodically screwed up, but that its better nature, its innocence, still pulses. 

Byrne begins Spalding Gray-ishly, sitting behind a desk and holding the model of a brain. He explains that we lose cerebral synapses after infancy and wonders whether we just plateau into stupidity or if the connections that start within us extend outward between us. For an artist who has speculated that he is on the mild end of the autism spectrum, this preoccupation with connection has both personal and ideological resonance.

With regard to his song “Everyone’s Coming to My House,” he contrasts a Detroit community choir’s upbeat, inviting version (which you’ll hear over the end credits) with his own introverted, ambivalent take. Throughout his career, Byrne’s music has felt like a form of psychoanalysis, and even as it takes this late open-armed civic turn, Byrne says that he, like the rest of us, must continue to change. As accomplished as he is — with a half century of exploration, collaboration, and sound- and idea seeking — he clearly and inspiringly remains a work in progress. 

American Utopia feels like a bookend companion to the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. Both feature pared-down staging, an avant-garde theatrical esthetic, a knowing performance-art vibe of interplanetary naivete. But his big white suit is now life-size and gray, as is he. And the dozen phenomenal musicians who accompany are dressed just the same, and they’re all barefoot. There’s a lovely, cheeky modesty to it all.

At 68, Byrne has become a friendlier, if not exactly folksy, stage presence. Over the years, he’s shown us a lot of his cards, and we know him not just as the neurotic looking, “Psycho Killer”-playing art-school dropout but as an occasionally downright ecstatic Latin dance-band-loving hip-shaker who’s into bicycles. The electronic trance essence of the Remain in Light era flowered long ago into a buoyantly absurdist world-music party extravaganza with Byrne more circus master than spotlight-hogging rock star.

Nonetheless, he is, let there be no mistake, still very much a rock star. His voice remains incredibly strong, steady, and supple, even into the falsetto reaches. It was never lyrical, but the nasal tenor hits emotional touch points all the same through Byrne’s directness and precision. 

Directness and precision are in fact the lodestars for the whole production. As Byrne emphasizes in introducing his fellow cast members, there are no playbacks or pre-recorded tracks. Together, the players are the music. Better yet, their performances are visually unencumbered by cords, amplifiers, risers, or a lot of excess technical clutter. Six percussionists anchor the rhythm-basted songs like the drumlines, samba schools, and New Orleans “second lines” that inspired these rousing arrangements. Even band leader Karl Mansfield’s keyboard is harnessed onto him.

Spike Lee takes an expert, unobtrusive approach to his film direction, placing myriad cameras to the sides and above to highlight the songs’ propellant phrasing and the vast space of an unencumbered stage. When the cast members snake through the thrilled audience in an encore, Lee’s camera operators are just ahead of them. In our masked-up locked-down state, that vibrant proximity of live performance feels all the more amazing, its loss all the more heartbreaking.

Annie-B. Parson’s choreography and musical staging blends the show’s jaunty “Road to Nowhere” marching groove with fun Pythonesque silly walks and Indian-inspired mudras hand gestures. Those I took as an homage to JoAnne Akalitis’s influence over Byrne’s staging of the Stop Making Sense touring show all those decades ago. What seemed so cutting edge has become, the way these things evolve, a crowd-pleasing expectation. 

In his patter, Byrne references Dada artists of the 1930s, how they saw nonsense as the only antidote to an ostensible logic that was leading to fascism and war. The more things change . . . 

But this absurdist has mellowed, standing at the edge of the stage — aging, barefoot, thoughtful, tuneful, human. He thanks us for coming.

No, Sir. Thank you. We needed this.

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