Thirty-six years after Stop Making Sense set the bar stratospherically high for the concert film, an unlikely duo has created an urgently joyous match. Spike Lee and David Byrne’s new venture combines the rapturous joy of Byrne’s music with Lee’s trademark style of confronting us with contemporary truths. The result is nothing short of wondrous.
Especially in 2020, the words ‘American’ and ‘Utopia’ seem oxymoronic when put together. In his bid to Make America Great Again, President Trump has created a canyon of fear and loathing, whipping up racial hatred and contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands with his mangled COVID strategy—and that’s just the start of it. “I’m a toddler / I’m a government man”—seems about right (“Born Under Punches”). But Byrne and Lee don’t wallow in this widespread despair, nor are they so gauche as to suggest that a good time at a concert could ever be enough to overwrite our anxieties. But by gently, joyously, providing us with a flicker of hope to hold in our hearts, David Byrne’s American Utopia invites us to suck the marrow out of life and not lose sight of what keeps us afloat in the face of despair: other people.
After an intriguing opening in which Byrne holds a human brain aloft, decreeing “here is something we call elucidation,” (“Here”), we’re gradually introduced to David Byrne’s Greek chorus of unspeakably talented singers, dancers and musicians: Chris Giarmo, Angie Swan, Jacqueline Acevedo, Bobby Wooten Iii, Mauro Refosco, Tendayi Kuumba, Gustavo Di Dalva, Karl Mansfield, Stephane San Juan and Daniel Freedman. The ex-Talking Heads frontman is now 68, but as nimble and enigmatic as he was in Jonathan Demme’s aforementioned 1984 concert film.
Released in 2018, American Utopia is Byrne’s first solo album in sixteen years, and forms part of his wider multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful, which posits itself as “a tonic for tumultuous times.” In this staged version of the album, which adds songs from his back catalogue both as a solo artist and with Talking Heads, he’s able to more explicitly perform his mission statement of optimism.
It’s not until a few songs in that Byrne lays out the point of this elaborate stage show: he’s interested in the way we ‘prune’ our connections away as adults, contrasting this to the untethered performers on stage, unencumbered by wires and standing microphones. “I know sometimes the world is wrong,” Byrne sings. “It’s wrong until you’re next to me” (“I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong”). Looking at a face, Byrne argues in one address to the audience, shouldn’t technically be more beautiful than looking at a bicycle, a sunset, or a bag of potato chips. But he soon deliberately contradicts this empty statement in the beloved Talking Heads songs “This Must Be The Place”, singing: “looking at people? Yeah, that’s the best.”
Spike Lee knows exactly how to capture this euphoria and translate it into a bold cinematic experience, expertly cutting, fading and framing the concert so that the at-home viewer feels the dimensions that are lost on the 2D screen. His generous framing of the in-house audience beckons them into the fray, inviting them into the party happening onstage. Everyone is invited to this Spike Lee joint—it’s a pluralistic paradise, writ cinematic.
But Byrne and Lee know that it isn’t enough to blithely state that if we all stick together, the world will get better. Both know that it is important to explicitly address the horrifying racism and brutality present in American society in order to try and forge any kind of path forward. The lyrics to “Slippery People” feel particularly poignant: “Put away that gun / This part is simple / Try to recognize / What is in your mind / God help us / Help us lose our minds / These slippery people / Help us understand.” From the rousing ode to immigrants (“Everybody’s Coming To My House”) to paying homage and lending solidarity to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Byrne and Lee weave current events into the transfixing performances onstage to create a stirringly powerful manifesto.
A highlight of this is when David Byrne discusses how Janelle Monáe gave him permission to cover her acerbic, urgent protest song “Hell You Talmbout.” The result is electrifying: watching the racially diverse cast deliver this impassioned requiem to Black lives lost as a direct result of entrenched racism in the US police force is unspeakably moving. This is where Lee’s directorial flair shines, with his trademark multimedia cutaways putting faces to the names being chanted by the performers onstage.
But David Byrne’s American Utopia is no misery-parade. “We’re a work in progress,” Byrne tells us, fervently. “We’re not fixed. We can change.” The concert’s rousing finale, “Road to Nowhere,” consolidates this pledge in moving proportions. “Well we know where we’re going / But we don’t know where we’ve been / And we know what we’re knowing / But we can’t say what we’ve seen / And we’re not little children / And we know what we want / And the future is certain / Give us time to work it out.”
“How can I dance and make notes at the same time?” I scribbled in my notebook, 13 minutes in to David Byrne’s American Utopia. Lee and Byrne’s collaboration will ignite both your brain and body, as successful in its ability to radically rewire your mindset as it is in making you want to dance your cares away.
Words by Steph Green
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.
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