Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Japanese fans of David Byrne may count themselves lucky, or they may not. The preternaturally optimistic rock star’s Broadway show, adapted to the screen by Spike Lee, will initially be shown here in theaters rather than on TV, to which, in the U.S., at least, it was relegated thanks to the pandemic. As with the Aretha Franklin film, Amazing Grace, which I reviewed yesterday, American Utopia should be seen in a theatrical setting if for no other reason than that’s where you can appreciate the full effect of the music, but more than the Aretha doc, Byrne’s and Lee’s production is visually rich, probably even more so than the stage production it’s directly taken from (it was filmed during a regular performance in front of a full house shortly before lockdown).

In fact, the care that went into not only the stage production but the filming can be distracting in terms of a viewer giving themself completely over to the musical exuberance on display. Most of Byrne’s aesthetic choices are, as they were when he led Talking Heads, so simple as to be almost meaningless in terms of subtext, but they dominate, nonetheless, especially his sartorial decisions: matching grey suits on all the people on stage and no shoes or socks. Similarly, while the music is characteristically loose in the rock style, the choreography is schematic. The musicians are arrayed as a marching band would be, with their instruments deployed mainly for portability so that everyone on the bare stage can move. Byrne is one of the few artists in the world who can afford to entertain his expansive idiosyncratic notions and he has assembled a first-class contingent of musicians, singers, and dancers from all over the world (a point he emphasizes during the requisite closing introductions). Moreover, Lee’s celebrated penchant for forcing camera angles and tricks in places where they wouldn’t normally seem to belong works well here, highlighting the physical intricacies of a production that is based almost solely on human bodies and the sounds they make. 

The result is a full manifestation of the promise of the title: this is an ecstatic work, and even more indicative of Byrne’s peculiar professional mission than Stop Making Sense, which many consider the apex of concert films solely for its ability to spark joy. Nevertheless, the obsessive attention to detail makes you wonder if you’re really getting the message when, probably, there isn’t any. Until the end, when the ensemble performs Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” the only song Byrne didn’t have a hand in writing, the movie never sets foot in the shadows. Monae’s song is about Black people being killed by police, and the screen shows faces and names of victims. Byrne encourages greater voting participation, but not in a nagging or pleading way. A few reviewers have compared Byrne’s approach to rock music, as well as to activist participation in changing things you don’t like, to Mr. Rogers’ approach to his own specific professional mission, which is why it’s difficult to find a theme in the production outside of “life is great so let’s have a good time.” Throughout the show, Byrne occasionally explains a song or a reason for doing what he’s doing, and the most characteristic line, as well as the most anodyne, is “Everybody is a miracle.” When the stage show is over, Lee even films the cast and staff going home by bicycle.

American Utopia is as good as Stop Making Sense, but the theme of lifting spirits was better served by Jonathan Demme, who was simply celebrating the uniqueness of America’s most unusual rock group. Byrne may or may not have something concrete to say about the state of American happiness in the 21st century, but his production is so attuned to his sensibility that you often wonder how much you’re missing. Best to just sit back and let the music take you away; or, if you are watching it at home, just get up and boogie.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi, (050-6868-5060),Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

David Byrne’s American Utopia home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 PM AU Film, LLC and River Road Entertainment, LLC

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