Spike Lee and David Byrne’s American Utopia

On Film / The Daily — Sep 21, 2020
Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

This year’s festival in Toronto, a pandemic edition with around fifty features instead of the usual couple of hundred, wrapped over the weekend, and no best-of-the-fest roundup, whether it comes from the Los Angeles Times or Vanity Fair, seems complete without the film that opened it, David Byrne’s American Utopia. Spike Lee has directed a dynamic yet unobtrusive documentation of the show that sold out the Hudson Theatre on Broadway from last October to February. “How is it,” asks A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club, “that in a year with a severely truncated lineup, the programmers finally selected something genuinely exciting as the opening night film?”

Few critics have been able to resist measuring American Utopia up against Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert movie that captured the Byrne-led Talking Heads at their exuberant peak. The band had emerged from a crowded club scene in New York in the late 1970s, driven by Byrne’s idiosyncratic persona, an art nerd simultaneously intrigued, enthralled, and maybe a bit frightened, too, by what the beats laid down by drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth were doing to his rail-thin body. Byrne is sixty-eight now, a little filled out, a white-haired Oscar and Grammy winner, and his new show has sprung from his 2018 album American Utopia, itself part of a larger multimedia project, Reasons to Be Cheerful.

In the film, upbeat versions of selections from the album are interspersed with such Heads-era hits as “Burning Down the House,” a real barnstormer in Stop Making Sense. But American Utopia “has its own celebratory, eccentric identity,” finds Dowd. “It’s more relaxed, maybe more intimate and inviting.” Byrne’s new band, “a multi-national eleven-piece decked out in identical gray suits, works its way across the space with movements that somehow feel both spontaneous and synchronized.” For Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, Byrne’s “musical re-thinkings here aren’t among his most compelling, but Byrne’s always had great backing bands and his best material is indestructible.” Spike Lee’s “approach to the show coverage is mostly solidly unspectacular,” finds Rizov. “He often chooses to disrupt the proscenium presentation for cut-ins that highlight groups of musicians as they rearrange themselves onstage in predictably elaborate choreography—this destroys unity of presentation, but you get the overall idea.”

At the very least, American Utopia is shot through with “more cinematic dynamism than the recent film version of Hamilton,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. “A comparison between the two productions is instructive: Where Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award–winning musical plays now as a relic of the Obama era, American Utopia, from its slyly ironic title on down, has been devised as a dispatch from Trumpland, with Byrne positioning himself as a figure of gentle, principled resistance. An alternate title could be Start Making Sense.” At Slant, Jake Cole notes that at a time when the pandemic has “devastated both the theatrical and live-music industries, American Utopia feels as much like a balm as it is a surprisingly direct call to political action and social betterment.”


This is precisely what’s ticked off Nick Newman at the Film Stage. Between songs, Byrne talks immigration up and fascism down and issues a call for more voter participation. For Newman, these “asides are wholly well-intentioned, sometimes well-pointed, and frankly embarrassing. I hate asking him to shut up and sing, but preaching to the small, demographically skewed choir—largely white and middle-aged, so far as you can see into the front row for which tickets had a $300 floor—on this dire American epoch often renders Utopia vividly out-of-touch.” But at Little White Lies, Charles Bramesco argues that the film is fully aware of its “purpose as a fleeting salve for the soul, and serves it generously. The momentous challenges facing our species won’t be swept away—if anything, they’re foregrounded—but they’re made tolerable if only for the hour and a half of rapture afforded by Byrne’s joyful noises. That’s a precious thing.”

American Utopia screens on Friday and then again on October 7 at the New York Film Festival before heading to HBO on October 17.

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