David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) BFI LFF Review

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: David Byrne
Starring: David Byrne

‘What if we could eliminate everything from the show except the things we care about the most? What would be left?’ asks David Byrne to his packed audience, barefoot upon Broadway’s Hudson Theatre Stage. ‘It’s just us, and you’ he answers with the flicker of an enigmatic smile appearing on his face. That smile extends outwards; acknowledges that you (yes, you) watching from behind the soft glow of a laptop screen or cosied up in the darkened room of your local cinema are just as much a part of this show as anybody else. 

Directed by Spike Lee (BlackKklansman; Da 5 Bloods), David Byrne’s American Utopia is a recording of Byrne’s live Broadway show: an artistic imagining of his solo album “American Utopia” with Talking Heads classics peppered in for extra pizzazz. The former Talking Head takes the stage with his band (or cast), each of them dressed from head to toe in identical silver-grey suits. Byrne strips the concept of a Broadway show to the bare bones; usual sights of overblown props and ostentatious equipment are missing – it really is just them and us. Musicians wander around a sparse stage with wirelessly amplified instruments strapped to their bodies; unencumbered by wires and ugly, in the way cables, the performers find liberation from the usual restrictions of an average gig. With untamed freedom, the collective blur of smartly-dressed bodies moves together as one living organism, making beautiful music as they go. Immediately identifiable from the pack, with his mop of silver hair, slim figure and all-American twang, Byrne leads his eleven barefooted musicians on a rapturous, rip-roaring ride of serotonin inducing fun. 

Sitting somewhere between a performance and a concert, American Utopia manages to populate its runtime with the same ideas and meditations as any other intelligent piece of highbrow theatre, while also transferring the feeling of reckless abandonment that settles in as soon as the lights go down whenever an artist takes the stage. Byrne opens the show with “Here”, which he sings pointing to different sections of a model brain (‘Here is an area of great confusion’). As the song comes to its close, Byrne addresses his audience for what is the first of many lectures of enlightened psychobabble. The human brain of a baby, he puts it to us, is filled with neuro-connections which steadily deplete as the brain matures, until it reaches a ‘plateau of stupidity’. The awe-inspiring observation points to the origins of our individuality, attributing the remaining connections as the foundations of our personhood. But, Byrne theorises, it is perhaps those very connections we have lost along the way which rob us of our ability to empathise and to connect with those around us. American Utopia concerns itself with exploring how exactly it is we might learn to re-establish those lost connections.  

American Utopia is very much an ode to the era Byrne came up in with his band, Talking Heads. The Avant-Garde sensibilities of New Wave are still very much alive and kicking in Byrne’s music; here we see him exacerbate its symbolism into theatrics with robotic dancing, geometric shapes, clean-cut fashion, bold electronic rhythms, pop art iconography, and, of course, the unmistakable jagged melody of his own voice. This form of experimental theatre isn’t an entirely new sensation. With “American Idiot”, the post-punk band Green Day incorporated their best-selling album into a narrative stage play to showcase the hypocrisies of modern-day America. Queen of Pop, Madonna, also embarked on a similar endeavour, taking her Madame X show to theatres all over the world, using the combination of song and stage to tell a story of womanhood and performance. Like Green Day and Madonna, Byrne moulds his music into a narrative structure but breaks new ground with immersive musical finesse, contemporary styling, theoretical pondering and political imperative. Through a vivid, musical-theatre exploration of his lyrics, Byrne attempts to understand why he finds others so intriguing: ‘I could never figure out why looking at a person is more compelling than looking at a bicycle’ he tells his rambunctious crowd.

Byrne and his band spend the entire show bopping barefoot through a selection of Bryne’s most iconic tracks. These naked feet seem like just another quirk of the performance until we arrive at “Everybody’s Coming to My House” – a song which perfectly illustrates Byrne’s direction. The stage is his house; we are his guests. Pull up a chair, kick off those shoes and make yourself comfortable. Byrne’s bunch of incredibly talented musicians all but pull us to our feet. Their every movement, melody and drumbeat not only exemplify the genius of Byrne’s music, but gift the show a supreme sense of wonder that exudes through the screen; this concoction of bright smiles, unparalleled artistry and smooth melodies is inspiring to behold. Byrne’s music has always been a zany breath of fresh air, but here, each song is revitalised with urgency and spectacle.

In addition to the none-stop flow of hits such as “This Must Be the Place”, “Lazy” and “I Zimbra”, Byrne aims to illuminate the desperate need for the Utopian ideas he speaks of. We see a tribute to activist and NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to protest the ingrained racism and brutality of America’s police force, followed by a cover version of Janelle Monáe’s protest song, “Hell You Talmabout”. Byrne also cites James Baldwin – whose words help bring his own ideas full circle. Despite the violence and oppression he suffered at the hands of his country, Baldwin believed America could change, Byrne tells his crowd; he too believes people are a work in progress with the capacity to change through the connections they share with others.

Spike Lee’s direction works wonders here; he works eloquently alongside Byrne to highlight the phenomenon of human connection. Lee nudges us to the forefront of every exuberant number, his keen vision elevating the film from just another Broadway recording to an immersive experience in which we can taste the Utopia Byrne dreams of. Cinematographer and two-time Lee collaborator, Ellen Kuras, makes the most of Byrne’s sparse staging by wriggling her lens into every unoccupied space. Lee and Kuras offer us the show from a variety of vantage points: birds-eye views reveal the mechanics of the chaotic choreography, and intense, on-stage close-ups take us by the hand and invite us to boogie with Byrne himself. The pair also throw in a choice collection of up close and personal images of bare feet that would send Tarantino into a tailspin. Editor, Adam Gough, knits together material filmed over several performances into a seamless flow, creating a shatterproof illusion of one unforgettable night spent on Broadway.

David Byrne and Spike Lee burn down the house with this expertly crafted, toes out extravaganza. Shove over “Hamilton”, David Byrne is here. 


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