In American Utopia, Hope
David Byrne's acclaimed Broadway show—now a movie by Spike Lee—is a fascinating case study for the concert film subgenre’s limits and possibilities.
With the release of his 2018 solo album American Utopia, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne plotted an ambitious tour across the United States, promising cuts from his legendary decades-long career and high production values reminiscent of his old group’s heyday. As a child raised on the music of the ’70s and ’80s, I jumped at the chance to see Byrne when the show stopped in my Alabama hometown, not exactly knowing whether to expect the nervy, big-suited Byrne of his band's zenith or a more reserved elder statesman. From the nosebleeds of that dingy theater, I saw something else entirely: Byrne and a small band (dressed in matching, regular-sized gray suits) dancing around the stage with the fervor of a marching band, unencumbered by their instruments or the worries of the outside world. By the time Byrne and his crew started playing “Road to Nowhere,” my heart absolutely swelled—it wasn’t just a song anymore, but an invitation to another world that reveled in its own Baroque strangeness and possibility. It was joyful, electric, and yes, life-affirming.
In the years since, Byrne’s stage show has taken residence on Broadway, earning rave reviews from critics and selling out shows nightly until its closure in February. With the show’s previously announced Fall 2020 run now postponed indefinitely, it seems profoundly dark that a show with such life would also be put on hold because of the pandemic, but this October, the show lives on as an HBO concert film, directed by Spike Lee.
This new American Utopia emerges as a fascinating case study for the concert film subgenre’s limits and possibilities. Since its humble beginnings in the late 1940s with recorded classical concerts, the concert film has been an odd entry in cinema with films ranging from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz to the various tween-focused flicks of the mid-2000s. These films lured in their audiences by promising a concert experience at once more intimate and grand than actually being there could ever be—a seductive prospect now that concerts are so out of reach. Luckily, American Utopia, the film, maintains all of the spark of the stage production with a refined bittersweetness, positioning the happiness on stage as not a state of being but a hard-earned and ongoing practice.
It’s impossible to watch it without thinking of Byrne’s first foray into the concert film, Stop Making Sense, where director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film captured Byrne and the Talking Heads at the peak of their talent and popularity following their fifth album, Speaking in Tongues. Filmed over the course of four live performances at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater in December 1983, the band tears through their hits with the help of Bernie Worrell, Lynn Mabry, Edna Holt, and other musical greats, commanding the stage with absolute control, from Byrne’s solo performance of “Psycho Killer” to the massive crescendo of “Take Me to the River.” It was heralded an instant classic.
The hyper-focus and superhuman bombast that engulfs Stop Making Sense is nowhere to be found in the comparatively humble American Utopia. Whereas the former exists in its own universe, American Utopia is fortunately (and unfortunately) of the moment: terrified of the future but incredibly optimistic for the potential for change. This incandescent joy has become a recurring theme in Byrne’s current practice; now far from the alleged chaos of the Talking Heads, there’s a new-found optimism in his work that at first glance reads as hollow only to reveal a depth and consideration of what happiness actually means. _American Utopia_’s eponymous, accompanying album is all about collectivity and the competing desire and anxiety in togetherness. His newest venture—a website fittingly called Reasons to Be Cheerful—grounds its hopeful content with calls to action on immigration reform and climate legislation.
Byrne’s sunny disposition is inescapable, giving the show an undercurrent of electricity with the way the musicians move about the mostly empty stage of the Hudson. As the musicians carry their instruments and sing, they seem positively lit up by the music, and thanks to Parsons’s choreography, they toe the fine line between intricately planned and imperfectly spontaneous. Despite the undeniable preparation and time that went into timing these movements to the music and stagecraft, it feels like an impromptu expression of the performers’ passion and hard work—not one of absolute perfection but unbridled exuberance.
In between songs, Byrne urges the audience to vote and monologues about the sorry state of the world. He humbly argues his concern, even admitting that he has made mistakes in the past and sees it necessary to rectify them. It’s a moment of true emotional intimacy that may have been lost on audiences in the recesses of the Hudson Theatre, but in Lee’s film, it is beautifully highlighted in the close-ups on Byrne’s scared but hopeful visage. This quiet concern morphs into a call to action with a cover of Janelle Monaé’s 2015 protest anthem Hell You Talmbout, in which he implores the audience to sing along and name the names of those murdered by police in America. Lee cuts away from the stage to show the photographs of those named in the song, adding in the 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, Nina Pop, George Floyd, and many more.
In the bleaker moments of the pandemic, I’ve gone back and revisited American Utopia a few times as a reprieve from all that’s going on. It’s comforting to look back at the film, or even my grainy iPhone videos from years back, and hear these songs in all their glory—a reminder of better times and the hard work that all of us must undertake to get back to that moment.