Critics Pick

‘American Utopia’ Review: Spike Lee Heightens the Magic of David Byrne’s Transporting Broadway Rock Show

The Toronto Film Festival kicks off with a thrilling film version of the David Byrne concert musical.

David Byrne performing in "American Utopia"
David Lee/HBO

When you watch the filmed version of a show like “Hamilton” or “Springsteen on Broadway,” it can feel like the next best thing to being there. But Spike Lee’s playful and entrancing big-screen version of David Byrne’s “American Utopia” is better than the next best thing — it feels more like a whole new thing.

Byrne’s spiky and exuberant 21st-century rock-concert-on-Broadway jamboree, which opened at New York’s Hudson Theatre on Oct. 20, 2019, consisted of the former Talking Head and 11 fellow musicians, all barefoot and dressed in silver-blue suits (a look that seemed inspired, on some karmic rock haberdashery level, by the image of Paul McCartney on the cover of “Abbey Road”), dancing and marching and prancing and bopping around a bare stage as they performed 21 songs. A handful of the numbers came from Byrne’s 2018 album “American Utopia,” but close to half of them were Talking Heads songs, most of which were featured 30 years ago in “Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme’s epochal Heads concert movie.

In “American Utopia,” the singer-musicians aren’t tethered to amplifiers or drum sets or big chunky keyboards. Most of them carry wirelessly amplified instruments (a snare drum, a guitar, a digital piano), so they can stroll around the stage in a technologically liberated state of frictionless freedom. Lee extends that sensation with his giddy camera placement and close-up views of the musicians reveling in the cool joy of what they’re doing. He shoots the show from a dizzying array of angles: head-on, looking down from the ceiling (the film opens with an overhead shot of Byrne seated at a table, staring at a plastic brain), and gazing up at the performers, so that we feel as if we’re inhabiting the space around them.

Any screen version of a Broadway show will take you closer to the action than most theater seats do. But in “American Utopia,” Lee turns the stage into a diorama he keeps breaking apart and pushing back together. “It’s just us, and you,” says Byrne, speaking to the audience, and the movie nudges that “you” into a place beyond the fourth wall.

That brain, by the way, is Byrne’s prop partner for “Here,” a song about the brain (“Here is an area that needs attention,/Here is a connection with the opposite side…”), which he uses to introduce the observation that babies’ brains have more neurons than those of adults. Growing up, Byrne tells us, is about losing neurons as we get whittled down to the identities we are. But he’s really talking about something that links up with time-honored Byrne-ian obsessions — the loss of soul (and maybe mind) bred by the fake reality of middle-class consumerism, and the detachment he feels from his fellow humans. “American Utopia” is a show designed to heal those disconnections.

In “Stop Making Sense,” Byrne, with his dark hair and popping eyes, presented himself as a stylized vision of a man in a Big Suit floating between how-did-I-get-here? confusion and burning-down-the-house liberation. Now, in his floppy white hair and life-size suit, still handsome and sleek but looking, at times, like a hipster Gore Vidal, he’s the aging rock star as sage, old and wise enough to let his inner spirit burst through.

The musicians come on a few at a time, and in many ways “American Utopia” feels like “Stop Making Sense 2020.” It’s a concert film gone digital, without the wires. The new movie builds and crests and surges, the flow of music interrupted only by the cheeky sincerity of Byrne’s stand-up-comedy stage patter (“Meeting people is hard! I know, I know: We have to do it”). It must be said: The numbers from Byrne’s solo albums can’t quite match the kicky panache of the songs from the Talking Heads era. Yet taken together, the music in “American Utopia” achieves a cumulative rush of Heady effervescence. Annie-B Parson’s choreography is so ingeniously alive that you almost feel like Byrne and the others are making up their casually synced funk-soul movements on the spot.

The film is studded with numbers that take your breath away: the impassioned suburban camp nostalgia of “Don’t Worry About the Government,” an “I Zimbra” that’s never sounded this recklessly good, the Warholian swoon of “I Should Watch TV,” the let’s-party-on-with-social-anxiety-disorder of “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” and an exultant “Once in a Lifetime” (a song so sublime it’s like therapy) in which the image of Byrne leaning back, the life force rushing over him, as he goes into the “Time isn’t holding us” refrain has to be one of the most ecstatic gestures I’ve ever seen in a pop-music film.

Moving from euphoria to audacity, Byrne leads a version of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” with the band chanting the names of African-Americans killed by police, that Lee visualizes with oracular power. Still to come are a surprisingly forceful rendition of “Blind,” from the Heads’ last album, and a rambunctious “Road to Nowhere” that, with the band walking around the aisles of the theater, channels both the chaos and the stubborn hope of the Trump era. There’s nothing ironic about the title of “American Utopia.” It’s David Byrne and Spike Lee reveling in the majesty, and hidden magic, of the here and now.

‘American Utopia’ Review: Spike Lee Heightens the Magic of David Byrne’s Transporting Broadway Rock Show

Reviewed at Digital Arts, Sept. 3, 2020. Running time: 105 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Films release of a Participant Media, River Road Entertainment, Warner Music Entertainment, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, RadicalMedia production. Producers: David Byrne, Spike Lee. Executive producers: Meredith Bennett, David Bither, Len Blavatnik, David Byrne, Kristin Caskey, Patrick Catullo, Charlie Cohen, Kurt Deutsch, Mike Isaacson, Jon Kamen, David Linde, Bill Pohlad, Dave Sirulnick, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyerman, Christa Zofcin Workman.  
  • Crew: Director: Spike Lee. Screenplay: David Byrne. Camera: Ellen Kuras. Editor: Adam Gough. Music: David Byrne.
  • With: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Tendayi Kuumba, Bobby Wooten III, Karl Mansfield, Gustavo Di Dalva, Jacquelene Acevedo, Angie Swan, Maura Refosco, Daniel Freedman, Stephane San Juan.