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.

Movie review: BlacKkKlansman, a Spike Lee joint

The funniest thing surrounding BlacKkKlansman is the real Ron Stallworth telling Lester Holt of NBC News that the real David Duke called him recently.

blackkklansmanAfter BlacKkKlansman, which the three of us saw at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, my daughter wanted to be held by her parents. I’m still not sure it was as a result of seeing the main story or it in combination with the coda. You may have already read about it, but I’m not sharing that.

The film starts off with a George Rockwell-like character (Alec Baldwin) setting the stage for the main, true story.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, Denzel’s son) becomes the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Initially, he’s stuck in the records room, where he’s harassed by his colleagues. He’s then assigned to check out a speech by Kwame Ture, ne Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins). He seemingly befriends the head of the black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know Ron’s real profession.

Ron then discovers the phone number of a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, er, The Organization. For the face-to-face meetings, Stallworth recruits his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who meets Walter (Ryan Eggold) and the somewhat unhinged Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen). Stallworth calls Klan headquarters in Louisiana to expedite his membership and speaks with David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard, with whom he begins regular conversations on the phone.

The story tracks along at a pace, but I start feeling nervous when the story bounces back and forth between a Klan initiation rite and Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) telling painful stories of American history.

Director Spike Lee responded to criticism of BlacKkKlansman by Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley. Riley took issue with Lee’s film, co-written by Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel, for making a cop a hero against racism. Lee noted, correctly, “Black people are not a monolithic group.” I also noted in the movie Ron’s ambivalence when he was undercover investigating the black student union’s activities.

The funniest thing surrounding BlacKkKlansman is real Ron Stallworth telling Lester Holt of NBC News that the real David Duke called him to find out if Spike Lee’s Cannes-winning film was going to be fair to Duke. Highly recommended.