David Byrne's 'American Utopia': Film Review | TIFF 2020

David Byrne on His New Documentary With Spike Lee-American Utopia
Courtesy of HBO

David Byrne and company in 'American Utopia'

A cathartic celebration, exactly when we need it.
10/17/2020

Spike Lee captures a performance from the smash Broadway run of this exhilarating hymn to community and connection from the former Talking Heads frontman and his multicultural troupe.

Despite the countless technological innovations in the 36 years since the release of Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, that iconoclastic time capsule of a 1983 Talking Heads show is still considered by many to be the greatest rock concert film ever made. So it's both miraculous and entirely fitting that director Spike Lee teams with the former frontman of that influential new wave band to deliver an immersive movie experience arguably equal to its illustrious predecessor in David Byrne's American Utopia.

What both films share is a harmonious fusion between the quizzical intelligence, the wit, the humanity and the ebullient musicality of what's happening onstage and the dizzying creativity of the team capturing it for the screen. Lee's knack for distilling the energy of live performance is no secret, for example in his terrific 2009 film of the unconventional Broadway musical Passing Strange. But the synergy here between filmmaker and subject — from the avant-funk grooves to the spirit of inclusivity and the urge to heal a broken nation — is simply spectacular.

Following its Toronto opening slot and U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, American Utopia will debut Oct. 17 on HBO and HBO Max, where it's impossible not to imagine it becoming a high-rotation repeat-viewing staple. Even if you don't consider yourself a fan of either the Heads or Byrne's solo work — an eclectic musical output spanning more than 40 years — just shut up and watch, with the volume cranked loud. Oh, and you might be advised to clear the furniture and get ready to dance your ass off.

The concert was filmed during its sold-out run at New York's Hudson Theatre following extensive 2018 U.S. and international tour dates; it includes a number of tracks from Byrne's album of the same name, but also dips deep into both the Talking Heads' back catalog and his own. Byrne brought in Annie-B Parson and Alex Timbers, two key collaborators from his hit 2013 Imelda Marcos dance musical, Here Lies Love, to sharpen the staging for Broadway, respectively as choreographer and production consultant.

The subtle narrative shaping, achieved with intermittent philosophical musings and a motivational message, delivers a testament to the values of openness, optimism and faith in our fellow man, even in a time of inescapable anxiety. Byrne borrows James Baldwin's definition of us as a work in progress, pushing the belief that we are still capable of change.

I had seen the show twice late last year and thought I had fully absorbed its magic. But I was surprised multiple times at the screening to find tears trickling down my face, realizing that sheer unadulterated joy has become an unfamiliar sensation in 2020. The experience of watching American Utopia six months into lockdown and in the midst of one of the most noxious election cycles in this country's history is an entirely new revelation. Actually, it's medicinal.

Part of the film's pleasure is the up-close access it affords not just to professorial postmodernist Byrne, but to an international troupe of 11 insanely talented musicians, all of them rock stars in their own right, with their own distinct personalities. The entire company is barefoot, wearing the same gray suits and shirts, which adds to the egalitarian nature of the performance.

The moves of backup singer-dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba range from robotic to playfully flamboyant, from graceful to goofy, joined by the band members to form tight clusters, snaking zigzags, marching circles or military-style lines. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras' multi-camera angles capture these ever-shifting synchronized formations and explosions of free-flowing, spontaneous movement with breathtaking agility, notably so in dazzling overhead shots that highlight the complexity of the staging.

Mirroring the incremental assembly of musicians onstage in Stop Making Sense, the performers also join Byrne here either singly, or in small groups, first glimpsed like ghosts behind the silver chainmail curtain. The difference is that nothing is set up onstage; every performer is "untethered," their cordless instruments strapped to their bodies with harnesses.

Every one of them is a blast to watch, but I especially couldn't get enough of the fabulous yin-yang symbiosis of Angie Swan on guitar and Bobby Wooten III on bass, the former a cool, commanding shredder, the latter emanating wildly infectious euphoria in his playing and dance moves. Likewise, the astounding dancing percussionists, Mauro Refosco, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Tim Keiper, Stéphane San Juan and Jacquelene Acevedo, wielding an assortment of drums, both hand- and stick-played, and building an ecstatic sonic landscape that extends from rock through Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

Byrne gives a lesson on the layering that goes into a music track by breaking down the components on a roof-raising "Born Under Punches." But in truth every number here, as scrutinized by Lee, Kuras and editor Adam Gough, is a master class in musicianship and a demonstration of the communal exultation of playing in a band.

The highlights are too many to mention, but the kinetic force pinging among the performers and the audience hits giddy peaks on classic Heads tracks like "Don't Worry About the Government," "This Must Be the Place," "Slippery People," "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" and the foot-stomping tribal happening of "I Zimbra." The Dadaist lyrics to that song prompt historical observations on the movement's absurdist protest response to the rise of fascism in early 20th century Europe, feeding the show's seamless political content, which includes a get-out-the-vote message.

Byrne builds his overarching theme around the opening number "Here," a track from the American Utopia album that breaks down the functions of the human cerebrum. He ponders how the hundreds of millions of neuro-connections in a baby's brain are lost as we mature into adulthood, conserving only those that define who we are and how we perceive the world. Helping us reacquire some of that lost elasticity is the show's utopian objective. "Everything can change," the company sing in the uplifting gospel-folk closing number, "One Fine Day."

Director Lee has made very few embellishments, and all of them have a point. There's eloquent simplicity in a brief projection on the curtain of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee as Byrne in "I Should Watch TV" asks "How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?" The most powerful addition comes in the company's rousing take on the Janelle Monae protest anthem "Hell You Talmbout." Photographs now accompany the call-and-response chant of "Say his name," showing each of the African Americans killed in racial and/or police violence stretching from Eric Garner back to Emmett Till. The faces of three victims who have died since, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, bring the song to an emotionally wrenching close.

Byrne, who was 67 when the show was filmed, remains a unique entertainer still supple in both voice and movement. It's a testament to his cohesive vision for American Utopia that the theatrical concert can thrill us with electrifying beats one minute and then plunge us into the stark reality of racial injustice the next, without ever surrendering the buoyant mood that binds this experience. Lee makes sparing use of audience shots, but in another variation on the live show's standard staging, the company do a full circuit of the house on the encore number "Road to Nowhere," capturing the sea of rapturous faces.

Even the end credits add to the satisfaction of this triumphant collaboration. Before singing "Everybody's Coming to My House," Byrne comments wryly on the difference between his own socially guarded take on the song and the contrasting note of welcoming warmth brought to it by a Detroit youth choir. Hearing that latter version as the company file out the Hudson stage door and tool around New York's theater district on bicycles is an invigorating tonic after months of isolation. I haven't had a better time at a movie all year.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Radical Media, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Todomundo, HBO Entertainment, Participant, River Road, Warner Music Entertainment
Distributor: HBO
Cast:
David Byrne, Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III
Director: Spike Lee
Producers: David Byrne, Spike Lee

Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, David Linde, Diane Weyermann, Len Blavatnik, David Bither, Charlie Cohen, Kurt Deutsch, Bill Pohlad, Christa Zofcin Workman, Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Meredith Bennett, Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson, Patrick Catullo
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Editor: Adam Gough
Choreography and musical staging: Annie-B Parson
Production consultant: Alex Timbers
Lighting designer: Rob Sinclair
Sound: Philip Stockton, Paul Hsu, Craig Kyllonen
104 minutes