Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
David Byrne and Spike Lee made <i>American Utopia</i> the right movie for 2020

David Byrne and Spike Lee made American Utopia the right movie for 2020

The best concert I saw in 2018 will most likely be the best concert I see in 2020. It came back into my life at just the right time: David Byrne’s American Utopia debuted on HBO this past weekend in the wake of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s farcical confirmation hearings, a foiled coup in my home state, and the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic—the scope, severity, and utter mishandling of which we can blame in part, like the two other items in that list, on a president who has returned to public life only shortly after becoming an active vector for a virus that has killed more than 220,000 Americans.

Like a lot of reactive works of art released during the presidency of Donald Trump (some of which are also making their television debuts in the lead-up to the 2020 general election), the film indirectly grapples with the history and the atmosphere that led to our current reality—though only American Utopia can lay claim to the ultimate existential question: “Well… how did I get here?” It was born from Byrne’s pre-2016 impulse to collect and collate news of genuine hope and human advancement, resulting in two, not-unrelated creative outlets: The editorial nonprofit Reasons To Be Cheerful, and the album that spawned the concert tour that was adapted into a Broadway show that is now a Spike Lee joint. There’s a book on the way, too, and, vaccine-willing, a second round of performances in New York City. But the film plays like a culmination, an idea maybe not reaching its final iteration, but certainly finding its ultimate expression.

American Utopia is just as energizing and affecting onscreen as it was in person, and Lee’s deft direction amplifies those qualities, emphasizing up-close views and illuminating angles unavailable to any concert- or theatergoer. The performers, tethered to their instruments and microphones but freed from the restricting elements of stands, cables, and seats, pass through our field of vision with a mix of precision and playfulness, with Lee’s mobile cameras matching and complementing Annie-B Parson’s choreography. I have to wonder if Byrne had a film version in mind from the start. Not only because his earliest statements about the tour evoked memories of Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme’s monumental concert film, Stop Making Sense, but also because the way the show is blocked and decorated creates an open invitation for a filmmaker to both document and fill in the spaces.

Such hospitality is on the star’s mind. Introducing the percolating American Utopia album cut “Everybody’s Coming To My House,” Byrne describes the transformation the song took when it was performed by The Vocal Jazz Ensemble of the Detroit School Of Arts. With its itchy textures and yelped verses, the studio version is classic, nervy David Byrne—a distant cousin to the crowded-party/busy-mind paranoia of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait.” “It kind of sounds like the singer is not sure how he feels about everybody coming over to his house,” Byrne says, photographed from behind, “and you can sense that he’s thinking, ‘When are they going to leave?’”

He mentions that the choir didn’t change the lyrics or the melody of “Everybody’s Coming To My House”—yet to Byrne’s ears, they gave the song a completely new meaning. “Their version seems to be about welcome, inviting everyone over. Inclusion.” When he says this in the movie, we’re no longer looking at his back—there’s still a good deal of distance between Byrne and the camera, but the POV has swung to the front of the stage, so we can see his face as he talks.

“I kind of like their version better, and I didn’t know how they did it,” he concludes. “Unfortunately, I am what I am.”

There are many David Byrnes in the public imagination. The one with the longest shadow is the young, twitchy beanpole at the forefront of Talking Heads, his intensity and his aloofness intimating autobiography into songs like “Psycho Killer” and “Warning Sign.” There’s the David Byrne who liked trying on costumes at the height of the band’s power (including some he shouldn’t have): A big suit for Stop Making Sense, a cowboy hat for True Stories, the spectacles of a music-video televangelist who still persuades people that they want to hear “Once In A Lifetime”’s inimitable studio flourishes in a concert setting—even though every single live version (including the one in American Utopia) fails to get great until the last “same as it ever was.” 2020 gives us conflicting Byrnes: The one moonlighting in the field of sanguine journalism with Reasons To Be Cheerful, and the egomaniacal asshole depicted by Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz in the pages of his memoir, Remain In Love.

That any of these people might be looked at as a beacon of positivity in trying times feels like a relatively recent development. Those first impressions of the “Psycho Killer” guy linger: During a SXSW Q&A in 2019, Byrne was asked about the “bleak outlook” of his early work, and whether or not he feels like he’s moved toward one of greater optimism. “I would like to think that I’m finding something, some bits of hope that all is not as bad as it often seems,” he replied. Alluding to the types of practical, replicable solutions highlighted by Reasons To Be Cheerful, Byrne said, “We need these things to show us that we are not as bad as we are portrayed when we look at ourselves in the media mirror. We have possibility, we can do things.”

David Byrne stands next to a lamp in a scene from American Utopia
Photo: David Lee/HBO

That plural is important. The key to American Utopia’s resonance isn’t so much one of joy versus despair as it is connection versus isolation. It’s a motif uniting the new film with Stop Making Sense: Byrne begins the show solo, and is gradually joined by a teeming mass of bandmates. It takes less time for him to find a friend in American Utopia—vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba emerge from the chain-mail backdrop midway through the first song, “Here”—and the downtime banter drives the theme home, filtered through personal anecdotes and Reasons To Be Cheerful-ready factoids about brains and civic engagement. Lee makes sure we see this projected through the performance, in all the little grace notes of interaction between the band and unspoken communication from the stage. There’s something stirring in tracking the tilt of Byrne’s head or the direction of his gaze during the opening number—acknowledgements that he sees the audience as they see him.

Of course, from the vantage point of mid-October 2020, there’s something stirring in there being an audience to see at all. American Utopia’s initial Broadway run closed on February 16, just a month shy of COVD-19’s complete and utter clampdown on the remainder of the year. A million-plus global deaths and one bumbling, insufficient American response later, the futures of live music and theater in the United States remain gravely imperiled; ever seeking the silver lining, the American Utopia website continues to advertise for an encore beginning in September of 2021.

This document of life just before everything changed can’t help but call to mind the crises that unfolded in the months since. American Utopia builds to a rousing rendition of Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere”—a song that has always walked a razor’s edge of glee and dread—and it does so with an immersive march through the Hudson Theater that probably can’t or won’t be a part of any future stagings. The “I’ll remove my masks when I am done” line really cuts through the other lyrics in the a cappella rendition of “One Fine Day.” Infectious disease and possible fatality stand in the way of the human-to-human connection the film celebrates. This performance that encourages its audience to get out of their heads, express themselves with their bodies, and embrace the world around them, must, in the best interests of public safety, be a private experience for the time being.

But the exuberance of American Utopia isn’t meant to distract from these calamities. It’s a product of calamity, of an artist seeking out sources of light while also acknowledging the presence and the danger of the darkness. Nobody’s ever going to accuse David Byrne or Spike Lee of being a Pollyanna; the setlist includes the creepy-crawly likes of “Born Under Punches,Slippery People,” and one track from Talking Heads’ classic of downtown dystopia, Fear Of Music. That song, “I Zimbra,” is prefaced with a primer on the Dada tradition from which its lyrics were adapted, and the circumstances that yielded the movement: “There had recently been an economic crash, the Nazis were coming to power, and many of the countries the artists lived in were sliding into fascism.” You could connect the dots yourself, but the musicians surging backward and forward onstage get you most of the way.

The cast of American Utopia kneels in a reference to Colin Kaepernick's "Star-Spangled Banner" protests
Photo: David Lee/HBO

It’s unsubtle, but this is an unsubtle age; the film is particularly direct on matters of racial inequality. There’s a certain ideological flattery to one such moment during the bridge of “I Should Watch TV”: While the musicians take a knee and raise a fist in a reenactment of Colin Kaepernick’s “Star-Spangled Banner” protests, an image of the activist quarterback is projected on the backdrop. If you’re paying Broadway’s second-highest average ticket price and/or a premium-cable subscription to see David Byrne’s American Utopia, odds are you already share some of David Byrne’s progressive politics. But you’re also paying Broadway’s second-highest ticket price and/or a premium cable subscription, so there are some good odds that you could stand to have your comfort and privilege rattled by a reminder that even someone of Kaepernick’s prowess and profile can’t fully escape the kudzu of systemic racism. In the film, it’s a prelude to the encore, in which the performance of Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout” cuts to photographs of the Black men and women whose names are chanted in the song’s verses—some of which are held by family members they’ve left behind. The camera pushes in on their faces, and the feelings of intimacy and rapport so crucial to the concert segments is conferred upon these victims of racial and/or state-sponsored violence. In American Utopia’s starkest acknowledgement of tragedies that have come to pass between February and October, now-familiar images of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are included in a post-song insert.

“Hell You Talmbout” arrives with the force of a trashcan crashing through a plate glass window and the quiet power of recognizing the limits of one’s own point of view. Byrne is acutely aware of what “a white man of a certain age singing this particular song” looks like; his “Hell You Talmbout” preamble gives credit to Monáe up front and stresses her endorsement of the cover. In another parallel between American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, directors Lee and the late Demme invest so much humanity in the characters of their narrative films. That makes them well-chosen collaborators for Byrne, who’s always excelled at observing people, but required a creative nudge to truly get in touch with them. It’s why True Stories, for everything that makes it special and all of its echoes of Demme, the Coen brothers, and Wim Wenders, still feels kind of remote.

It’s difficult to get close to anyone, physically or otherwise, right now. But American Utopia fabricates the sensation of getting close to someone who for so much of his career felt unreachable. One of the prevailing contemporary images of Byrne is of the artist on his own, riding his bicycle through the New York City streets. That’s how we see him leave the theater in American Utopia—but as the credits roll, night turns to day and he’s joined by the rest of the band. The choral arrangement of “Everybody’s Coming To My House” plays, and we can see what Byrne was getting at with his comments earlier in the movie. It does sound a little more welcoming this way. He’s wrong about the lack of changes, though: When the Vocal Jazz Ensemble does the song, there are select “I”s and “they’re”s that become “we”s and “we’re”s. At the end of 2020, it sounds fitting: We’re never going to go back home, at least not home as we remember it. But we’re never going to be alone. We never were to begin with.