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If there ever was a year for the Toronto Film Festival to open with a musical pep talk for Americans, surely 2020 is it. American Utopia, the concert film of David Byrne’s 2019 Broadway show, directed by Spike Lee, provides a spark of optimism in the era of COVID-19 and civil unrest. Comprising songs from Byrne’s catalog, including some from his Talking Heads years, and performed by a diverse troupe of musicians wearing the veteran artist’s signature natty suit, American Utopia is “about immigration, civic engagement, voting — a celebration of what’s wonderful about this country,” says Participant Media CEO David Linde, whose company backed the film.
For Byrne, American Utopia, which will premiere Oct. 17 on HBO after opening TIFF on Sept. 10, is an extension of an initiative he launched to boost his own mood after the 2016 election, Reasons to Be Cheerful, which distributes pieces of good news via various platforms. From his office in Manhattan in late August, Byrne spoke about collaborating with Lee, staying in New York City during the pandemic and keeping his own chin up.
Reasons to Be Cheerful and American Utopia seemed to anticipate our need to feel good about something right now. What compelled you to make something so optimistic?
Even before the last election, I could feel divisions and antagonism ramping up. I’m a news junkie, and when I would wake up and read the paper, it would really make me feel upset. So I started saving articles that gave evidence of hopeful initiatives and things that people were doing. In the American Utopia show, we, onstage, are evidence that things aren’t as bad as we’re being told all the time. That seems to have had an impact on people. We’re definitely not ignoring issues and saying everything’s going to be fine. Spike Lee, of course, picked up on all of that.
How did Spike come to direct this film?
We’d crossed paths over the decades. I’ve appeared in some of his documentaries just as a talking head. Not to make a pun. I reached out to him and said, “Spike, I’m doing this show. I’d like you to see it. There’s interest in turning it into a film.” So, he came up to Boston. We were doing out-of-town tryouts. At the end of the second show, he came backstage and said, “I want to do this.” So, there we were. We just said, “OK, now we can make this happen.”
How did you change the way you presented it in the transition from theater to film?
Spike added some visual elements to a song called “Hell You Talmbout.” It’s a Janelle Monáe song that we did that names people who’ve been murdered. [Spike] reached out to the families of some of those people. Those people hold a picture of the family member that they’d lost [and it’s] intercut with us onstage. He didn’t add a lot more. A lot of the stuff was about being intimate to what’s happening onstage.
How did you choose the songs that are in the show? “One Fine Day” has become kind of a pandemic anthem for me.
We tried a lot of different endings. We needed something to bring people’s hopes up a little more. “One Fine Day” did work that way, by doing it a cappella. It worked dramatically. In “Hell You,” I realized, “OK, we’re going to take all our other instruments off. Now everybody’s going to be playing percussion. There’s no guitars and keyboards or any of the other stuff.” That’s a big step. Then I thought, “Oh, the next song, what if we all took those off so it was nothing except just us? No instruments whatsoever.” So that’s what we did. Of course, certain songs in the catalog aren’t going to work. “Psycho Killer” is not going to be in the show.
How have you spent your lockdown period?
I’ve been working on a couple of projects. My Reasons to Be Cheerful project has a spinoff called We Are Not Divided. I have another project that might be a socially distanced performance thing. I’ve been keeping busy. I’m learning how to cook lots of dishes. I enjoy cooking, and since there’s nobody there but me, if it doesn’t work out, then nobody knows about it. I make everything in quantities so that I can make TV dinners in these Pyrex containers that I can heat up whenever I need them. The other day I made chicken mole with a stir-fried squash.
One of the fun moments in this film is seeing you bike off into New York City at the end. How do you respond to people saying that New York is dead?
I guess I think New York is going to come back, but I also understand for a lot of these people who are making their way in the world, living in a tiny apartment, paying way too much rent … All the benefits of living in New York, the socializing, the arts and hanging out with friends at a restaurant and going to hear live music and all this sort of stuff, they’ve all been erased. And all you’re left with is … just a tiny apartment. Those people, understandably, say, “Well, when is this going to get better? When is it going to get back to what I remember?” I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I read Jerry Seinfeld saying, “No, New York is not over. It’s a really vibrant city.” He’s right. But a lot of the policies and aspects of this city — this is a moment to think about them more.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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