In this very non-traditional movie year, the best film I’ve seen so far is Spike Lee’s presentation of American Utopia, a Broadway performance by David Byrne that ran between October of last year and February of 2020. The concert film is currently available for streaming on HBO Max.
Byrne’s show features a handful of tracks from his American Utopia album, released in 2018, but also cuts from the rest of his solo career and his time with Talking Heads. In between songs, Byrne opines on the state of America, offering an expansive and hopeful vision that couldn’t feel more welcome in this dark year.
Byrne’s concept for the live show includes a dozen or so performers, all barefoot and clad in matching grey suits, completely untethered. The percussionists and keyboardists wear their instruments on straps around their necks. Everyone has sensors on their shoulders that allow the lighting to follow them around the stage.
The result is a multi-cultural community of performers free to move around in joyous revelry, creating a wall of sound so skillfully that Byrne stops at one point to prove that all the music is, indeed, coming from the people onstage.
The songs from American Utopia are fine, but they don’t approach the best of Byrne’s solo material. And nothing tops the wonderful Talking Heads tunes, which are given new life here just as they were in Jonathan Demme’s classic 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense.
Thirty-six years later, Lee’s film is a bracing and soul-soothing bookend to Demme’s, and further proof that David Byrne is a true original.
Note: YouTube is pulling down clips from the show, so I’m going with a trailer instead of a full song.