American Utopia, online, 18 December 2020–31 March 2021, from £3.49 - Book now
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne enlists director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) for American Utopia, a rapturous, innovative new concert film direct from Broadway. The musician is joined on a plain grey stage, by an international band of musicians, all barefooted and dressed, like him, in slate grey suits. Crucially, everybody also wears wireless equipment. From Byrne with his guitar and headset, to the drummers, every performer is left unmoored and free to move about the stage as they blast through a series of solo hits and Talking Heads classics.
Byrne was also front and centre for Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the famous Talking Heads concert doc, released in 1984. For many, that film represents the high point of the genre, and if American Utopia doesn’t quite hit the same heights, it is certainly in the conversation. Lee adeptly catalogues the sheer exuberance of the performers as they alternately dance and march their way around the stage, untethered and unleashed with the songs from one of popular music’s deepest songbooks.
they alternately dance and march their way around the stage, untethered and unleashed with the songs from one of popular music’s deepest songbooks
The director reportedly learned the show inside out and it certainly shows as he matches dynamic choreography for songs like ‘Burning Down the House’ and ‘This Must Be the Place’ with shots from every conceivable angle. In between tracks, Byrne holds court with a series of musings and readings that accumulate into a deeply empathetic, humanistic sermon concerning the state of America, and the wider world.
The synergy between the musician and his director is nowhere better felt than in an authorised cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ in which Lee overlays images of black Americans killed by police officers. But if American Utopia is a serious work produced in tandem by two world-class creative forces, it is also a gorgeously conceived, joyous reminder of the connection that exists between stage and crowd.
American Utopia, online