(Credit: TIFF)

‘American Utopia’ review: Spike Lee presents David Byrne in thrilling style

'American Utopia'
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In 2019, David Byrne opened the live concert, American Utopia. Variously described as a ‘theatrical concert’ or ‘concert/showpiece,’ the innovative concert did more than just present the tracks from Byrne’s American Utopia album. It is a show that includes music, dance, mime, performance art, political statements, and messages of both discouragement and hope. It is an amazing concert and one that sums up the current tone of life in America perfectly. 

Director Spike Lee was given leave to document the show during its performance at Hudson Theatre in New York, and produce a film version of it. The resulting combination of Byrne’s music, a unique stage show, and Lee’s cinematic skill adds up to something very unusual but completely brilliant. Following its Sept 19 premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the eagerly awaited film will be released October 14 in the UK, October 17 in the US.

The show employs a minimalist set design, which does not change in the course of the show, apart from lighting effects. The stage is grey and surrounded by a metallic grey curtain made of a series of fine chains, hanging vertically around the performance area. It opens on Byrne, in a grey suit, seated at a desk examining a model of a human brain and, for the introductory number, ‘Here’. As Byrne stands, two backup singers, also wearing the same grey suits as Byrne and the rest of the cast, enter through the chain curtain. As Byrne addresses the audience, describing the way our brains struggle to make sense of the world, some of the clever additions to the show make themselves apparent. The two backup singers react to his speech, at one point appearing to move Byrne like a marionette, jokingly replicating familiar gestures from the ’Same as it Ever Was’ video. 

Gradually, all the members of the cast appear on stage, all in grey suits, all barefoot. They are necessarily a multi-talented group, packing every requirement into the fewest possible crew members: the two main backup singers are also dancers; the musicians, mainly percussionists, also serve as both ensemble dancers and extra backup singers. There is no additional music provided, live or recorded, even from offstage—which Byrne takes pains to prove to the audience. Byrne makes the very most of his small, gifted entourage, who not only provide music but use dance, movement and gesture to enhance the mood of each musical number. Byrne and his onstage crew seem to work as a single organism. 

Spike Lee has little creative input into the actual stage show but uses camera work to increase the impact of some songs, including occasional overhead shots of the stage as the performers dance, and ground-level shots from the foot of the stage. He sometimes uses the camera to point more clearly to specific staging decisions, giving them additional impact to the film audience. Lee’s point of view also offers greater access to the performance than would be available from the audience, at times bringing the viewer onto the stage, giving the feeling of having joined the cast. Lee captures some of the more effective lighting techniques perfectly, including a moment when stage lighting causes the dancers to form giant silhouettes which they playfully interact with; or when their actions are directed by small, square spotlights.

(Credit: TIFF)

Byrne provides an honest background in his introductions to certain selections. ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’, for example, he introduces by describing a cover of the song, done by a small school choir in Detroit, which has become a popular online video. The song, Byrne says, was initially meant as a nervous complaint about immigration: all these people arriving at his house, and “when will they leave?” The school choir, however, performs the song as “a theme of welcome, inclusion.” Byrne says he liked their approach, but concludes wryly, “unfortunately, I am what I am,” before launching into his own, familiar version of the song.

The concert is largely material from the album, American Utopia, but it does include a handful of popular Talking Heads numbers — ‘Watching the Days Go By’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime’, among others — given a fresh twist with the accompanying stage performance and new arrangements. New material includes Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘What You Talmbout?’ In a brief introduction, Byrne says he asked Monae for her opinion on an older white man performing the song; she was favourable. He and the cast perform a dynamic version of the song, during which they call out names of black shooting victims. At this point, Lee does include material of his own, by adding flash images of each victim’s family members holding a placard bearing the victim’s name, as each name is called out. 

The concert concludes with an a capella rendition of ‘One Fine Day’. The inevitable encore begins with a soft a capella introduction to ‘Road to Nowhere’, at which point the band joins in and the song becomes cheerful and lively, ending in a march off the stage and through the audience, the spectators participating freely and enthusiastically at this point, as the curtain falls onstage and the cast exit at last. 

The film continues from here, with hand-held cameras following the cast as they go backstage, capturing the performers as they celebrate the show’s success and leave the theatre together for further celebration, to a soundtrack reprise of ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’.

This is a perfect collaboration, and one of the best live concerts on film.

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