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


Documentaries that consist of nothing but talking heads can be incredibly dull and uncinematic. Thankfully a documentary about Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s American Utopia is anything but on a Road To Nowhere.

The concert film or live theatrical cinematic experience is nothing new. NT Live has grown in popularity over the last ten years and the original cast recording of Hamilton has become a phenomenom on Disney+. All of that is old hat however when it comes to David Byrne. In 1984, Jonathan Demme directed Byrne in the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.

So it makes complete sense that when Byrne took to the Broadway for a stage version of his American Utopia album, he would try to recreate that magic on film. With the assistance of director Spike Lee.

The singer and his band are untethered by wires and cables, free to move wherever they need to on stage. As Byrne states when talking to the audience, there are no barriers between them and the crowd. He wants there to be a connection between artist and audience.

Lee is able to generate that connection for the cinemagoing audience by giving them the best seats in the house. The camera set ups take the viewer right on stage next to Byrne and his crew perform on a minimalist set barefoot in matching grey suits.

Effective lighting design, choreography and editing choices help to give each number its own unique feel whilst still feeling part of the whole performance. Byrne not only performs songs from the American Utopia album but also uses the interludes between numbers to speak to the audience on a number of issues. Important issues that he would address in his version of Utopia whether it is television, voting or violence.

This leads to an incredibly powerful moment when they perform a cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song ‘Hell You Tamboult’. A rhythmic chant that acknowledges the names of victims of violence (often by the police) such as Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. Despite being recorded in 2019, Spike Lee updates the performance to include recent victims George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

The show has a message but Byrne doesn’t make the mistake some bands do with tours and only play the new stuff. He knows that fans will have come to see and hear the classics and he doesn’t disappoint. Rattling through songs such a This Is The Place, Lazy and Once In A Lifetime.

When the band breaks out into Burning Down The House, Lee is forced to change tactics and camera set ups. Pulling back and breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the crowd in the theatre who stop treating the performance as a show but a concert and rise to their feet to dance. What starts at the front row filters through the stalls until everyone is on their feet for the finale.

Utopia refers to an imagined place or state where everything is perfect. Well imagine no more. David Byrne’s American Utopia is the perfect remedy to these trying times. A cathartic, infectious and joyous experience that everyone will want to call Home.

Film Rating: ★★★★★

Director: Spike Lee
Stars: David Byrne
Runtime: 105 minutes
Country: USA

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