'David Byrne's American Utopia' Movie to Open Virtual Toronto Festival

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
David Byrne's American Utopia

Director Spike Lee's filmed version of the Talking Heads frontman's acclaimed Broadway show will launch TIFF's 45th edition Sept. 10.

HBO's Spike Lee-directed filmed version of David Byrne's American Utopia Broadway stage play is set to open the virtual Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10, fest organizers said Tuesday.

David Byrne's American Utopia features the Talking Heads frontman and 11 musical artists from around the world performing songs from the 2018 album American Utopia, as well as songs from Byrne's Talking Heads and solo catalog. The show ran from October 2019 to February 2020 on Broadway.

"This joyful film takes audiences on a musical journey about openness, optimism and faith in humanity," Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of TIFF, said in a statement. Cast and creative for the film, including Byrne and Lee, will not attend Toronto in person, but are expected to appear virtually.

And Toronto has yet to name a venue for its first-night premiere, which traditionally has been Roy Thomson Hall. After launching Toronto, David Byrne's American Utopia will land on HBO in the fall, and simultaneously on the Crave streaming service in Canada.

"David's poignant vision paired with Spike's impeccable direction is a visual journey. TIFF Festival attendees are certain to be captivated by this unique viewing experience during these demanding times," Nina Rosenstein, executive vp of HBO programming, added in her own statement.

David Byrne's American Utopia opening Toronto's 2020 edition marks the second year running in which a movie that will debut locally on Bell Media's Crave streaming platform is launching TIFF. Bell Media is TIFF's largest corporate sponsor.

The Daniel Roher-directed documentary Once Were Brothers, Robbie Robertson and The Band, a Crave original, opened Toronto's 2019 edition. But that's where comparisons between the Toronto festival last year and a slimmed down TIFF this year end.

As Toronto heads online this year, the September event plans in-theater screenings for only around 50 indie titles as well as online screenings, red carpets, press conferences and industry events on a first-time digital platform. And Toronto's proposed in-theater play for movies, including David Byrne's American Utopia on opening night, will require a greenlight from city and provincial health and safety authorities.

"The presentation of TIFF's traditional in-person film festival will be contingent on the province's reopening framework to ensure that festival venues and workplace practices meet and exceed public health guidelines," TIFF organizers said Tuesday.

Other indie film titles to be announced so far for Toronto's 45th edition include Halle Berry's MMA drama Bruised; Ricky Staub's horsemanship drama Concrete Cowboy; Francis Lee's Ammonite, toplined by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan; Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round; and Reinaldo Marcus Green's Good Joe Bell, starring Mark Wahlberg.

Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF, said Spike Lee had captured the cultural zeitgeist with his filmed version of Talking Heads frontman's theatrical concert. "With David Bryne's American Utopia, [Lee] brings Byrne's classic songs and joyous stagecraft to the screen just when we need it. Spike's latest joint is a call to connect with one another, to protest injustice, and, above all, to celebrate life," Bailey said in a statement.

Participant, River Road Entertainment and Warner Music Entertainment executive produced and financed Lee's movie. David Byrne's American Utopia is produced by Byrne's Todomundo and Lee's Forty Acres, and is also executive produced by RadicalMedia.

Byrne and Lee serve as producers. Jeff Skoll, David Linde, Diane Weyermann, Len Blavatnik, David Bither, Charlie Cohen and Kurt Deutsch are also executive producing.

Bill Pohlad, Christa Zofcin Workman, Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Meredith Bennett, Kristin Caskey, Mike Isaacson and Patrick Catullo, who lead produced the Broadway production, also serve as executive producers.