Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Directed by Spike Lee

American Utopia

Flicking through the channels in late December, which I seldom do, I came across something amazing. It was David Byrne and a troupe of like-dressed men and women. This must be the film of his American Utopia show on Broadway. They are performing Janelle Monae’s astonishing “Hell You Talmbout”, complete with images of murdered Black men and women.

Then some other songs, including Road to Nowhere, the Talking Heads tune. This involved the cast literally marching around the theater. My, I need to see this in its entirety, which I did on HBO about a week later.

Like the Stop Making Sense tour, where I saw Talking Heads at SPAC in the early 1980s, this show adds layers. First Byrne, then the two folks, a black woman and a white man, I describe as “interpreters.” They sing, but they also enact choreographed movements. The ensemble builds with keyboards, guitar, and percussion – a lot of percussion.

Peppered between the 20 Talking Heads and solo songs are Byrne’s musings, about the nature of things – how the brain develops. The show is political. Not capital P political, except for the Monae song. But he notes that most of the cast are immigrants, including himself, born in Scotland. He asks people to vote, though he does not say for whom.

One of the facets that made this show work so well is the technology. Everyone moves around the stage, in different arrangements. The instruments are all hand-held and wireless. It is a very freeing experience.

The right thing

The movie’s director is Spike Lee. Per NPR, he “works right alongside Byrne, bringing viewers into the show…, putting us right on stage with these talented artists, and transcending a mere recording of a live event.” He must have placed cameras all over. My favorite shot might be from above the stage, the musicians in the configuration of a pinwheel marching band.

I LOVED this movie. As RogerEbert.com  notes, “David Byrne’s American Utopia is a joyous expression of art, empathy, and compassion.” The end credits feature Everybody’s Coming To My House by the Detroit School of Arts. It’s a better version than his version, Byrne opines.