movie review

American Utopia Speaks to the Recent Past and, Even More, the Present

David Byrne & Co. Photo: HBO

“Thank you for leaving your homes.”

David Byrne says this to an audience at the Hudson Theatre near the start of American Utopia, the filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway concert/musical that airs Saturday on HBO. When he said this during the show’s live run, which ran from October of 2019 to February of 2020, it was a sincere expression of gratitude for those who had spent their time and money to witness this dynamic performance of Byrne’s music, both from his American Utopia album and his broader career, including his years as frontman for the Talking Heads.

Now, as the stage show is transmitted to us via televisions, tablets, and cell phones, that innocuous statement becomes unintentionally ironic. We haven’t left our homes to go and see this version of American Utopia. Even if we wanted to visit the Hudson Theatre, or any Broadway stage, we couldn’t. They’ve all been closed since the beginning of this pandemic, which caused theaters, among other places, to shut down less than a month after American Utopia ended its run at the Hudson. The show had been due to return this fall, a plan shelved now that Broadway theaters will remain shuttered until June.

But in a way, even this American Utopia allows us to “leave our homes” in some sense. To the extent that film can, it reminds us how it feels to watch something vibrant and thought-provoking in a live venue, surrounded by people who are fully engaged in what they are seeing. Byrne’s perpetually focused energy and that of his kinetic musical accompanists and two expressive dancers, Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarno, act as a magnet, tugging your attention away from usual concerns — COVID-19, Supreme Court appointments, the fact that there are always so many damn dishes in the sink — and fixing it on their precise movement and the rousing music they generate. Even the themes in American Utopia, which runs a string through Byrne’s discography upon which it hangs multifaceted questions about America’s capacity to become a better nation, resonate more deeply than they may have as recently as eight months ago. There’s hope in this performance, too, and that is particularly valuable to hear and feel in this moment.

“We’re not fixed,” says Byrne, dressed, like everyone onstage, in a gray suit more tailored and dignified than his famous Stop Making Sense giganto blazer. “Our brains can change.” This is a reference to the beginning of the show, in which he holds a model of a human brain in his hands during the song “Here,” and later explains that infant minds are filled with neurological connections that they lose as they get older. Byrne jokingly suggests that all that shedding makes us stupider as we age, but by the end of the performance, he revises that perception and sees a potential bright side in it: Brains literally can and do change, even though the world keeps providing evidence to the contrary. If your mind has opened even a little by the time American Utopia is over, that is a testament to what publicly presented art can do and why its absence is so deeply felt right now.

A movie of a concert or a play cannot replicate what it feels like to be there. What it can do is give you access to perspectives that a typical ticket-holder does not get. Spike Lee, who directed American Utopia, inherently understands this and allows the audience to view the onstage action from practically every spot in the theater: the front row; the orchestra seats, where shadowy silhouettes of audience members bob into the camera’s line of sight; the balconies; and onstage, via close-up views of the performers, their mobile drum sets, and even their bare feet. In Utopia, no one wears shoes.

Lee captures some spectacular overhead views of the effective, deliberately minimalist stage, framed by lengthy hanging chains. When Byrne and his 11 bandmates march in an X formation during an infectious take on “Burnin’ Down the House,” you can see from high above just how perfectly they hold that formation.

There are other Talking Heads callback moments, particularly during “Once in a Lifetime,” in which Byrne recalls his herky-jerky moves from Stop Making Sense. But the nostalgic moments are balanced out by the ones that feel so current, it’s possible to believe the show was actually written within the last month. Byrne talks at length about the importance of voting, acknowledging that, on average, 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in local elections. To illustrate the point, a small fraction of the crowd is illuminated, at which point Byrne congratulates those in the dark on having their lives decided by the few in the light.

He uses the song “Everybody’s Coming to My House” as a jumping-off point to celebrate immigration. Byrne notes that he wrote the song originally from the point of view of someone concerned that all the guests at this hypothetical house might never leave. When students from the Detroit School of Arts covered it, he says he heard the lyrics in a happier context: “Their version seems to be about welcoming, inviting everyone over, including.”

Given how impossible it is to imagine anybody, not to mention everybody, coming to our houses right now, that second interpretation possesses even more poignancy. So does the performance of “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest song co-written by Janelle Monae and members of her Wondaland collective to highlight victims of police brutality. “Eric Garner/ Say his name,” Byrne and the members of his collective chant. “Trayvon Martin/ Say his name.” They go through name after name, while we see photos of the victims, often held up, in footage included by Lee, of their mothers. Unlike it did during the stage show, the song ends with a final image of three people whose names should also be said but couldn’t during American Utopia’s run: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. It is the most charged, political, and bracing moment in the nearly two-hour experience.

The most joyful moment in a show orchestrated by a man actively seeking reasons to be cheerful comes in a glorious curtain-call performance of “Road to Nowhere.” Like so many Byrne and Talking Heads songs, its percussive engine is so upbeat it practically propels anyone listening to start hopping up and down. The lyrics can be viewed as pessimistic or optimistic depending on one’s reading. “We’re on a road to nowhere” — that doesn’t sound promising. But these lines, especially when performed in a theater where everyone is up on their feet and clearly blissed out on all the sound and vision, signal a place, maybe even a utopia, in the distance: “There’s a city in my mind/ Come along and take that ride/ And it’s alright, baby, it’s alright/ And it’s very far away/ But it’s growing day by day and it’s alright.”

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American Utopia Speaks to the Recent Past and the Present