LFF 2020: David Byrne’s American Utopia Review
The spectre of Stop Making Sense might have haunted David Byrne’s American Utopia. Jonathan Demme’s concert film documenting Talking Heads’ "Speaking in Tongues" tour in 1983 is regarded as a masterpiece of the genre and a marriage of two visionaries: Demme and Byrne. A live wire of energy and passion with its own shambolic, sweaty magic, it cemented Byrne’s reputation as a truly exceptional performer and became the aspirational benchmark for every concert film since.
Spike Lee, another great American auteur, helming the Talking Heads frontman’s new journey through some of his greatest hits certainly welcomes comparison. But American Utopia, a filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway show (an adaptation of his 2018 album of the same title alongside older material), is thankfully its own brilliant beast.
Having famously told us to stop making sense, Byrne now openly searches for a shred of sense in an ever more uncertain world of rising nationalism, ongoing racist police brutality, disconnection and disillusionment. Byrne lays out his desire for a more compassionate and yes, utopian, future from the get-go with "Here", a gorgeous yet painful paean to the human mind. Sitting at a desk under a spotlight in his trademark suit, he holds a model of a brain aloft like an eccentric but sympathetic biology teacher, demonstrating its sections, their purposes and their flaws. “Raise your eyes to one who loves you,” he sings, “It is safe right where you are.” It’s a breathtakingly intimate opening to a show that’s often barnstorming but which never loses sight of its core message of inclusion and empathy.
Unsurprisingly, Lee proves to be extraordinarily adept at translating movement on the stage into cinematic language. The set is minimal - the stage is framed on three sides by an illuminated lightweight curtain of silver chains through which members of Byrne’s eleven person ensemble, all in the same grey suits, appear as if entering a transient, almost spiritual sanctum.
In stark contrast to the slapdash direction of this year’s other major Broadway film, Hamilton, Lee understands how to communicate the geography of space and avoids the trap of over-reliance on close-ups (though Byrne’s bare feet practically deserve their own credit). The band are completely untethered by cables and move freely with their instruments, and Lee knows precisely when to showcase their surprisingly graceful movements across the stage using locked off high angles, when to have the camera glide with them from behind the chain curtain and when to go handheld to capture a more immediate looseness. His authorship is most obviously signalled by a powerful sequence featuring a cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song "Hell You Talmbout" highlighting the names of Black people who were victims of racial violence and the police, but it’s also there in every slick camera move and every perfectly timed cut. It makes for a visually dynamic but unflashy spectacle that demonstrates another perfect partnership between director and performer.
Byrne’s search for sense might sound like an eye-rollingly self-referential and self-reverential move, but the hits of the "Stop Making Sense" era are imbued with a new, more urgent meaning within this narrative of disconnection and reconnection. “Same as it ever was,” goes "Once in a Lifetime’s" famous refrain, and its story of personal crisis still feels relevant today. But they’re also just great songs to dance to, and because being able to experience live music again still feels like a distant dream, witnessing the joy of the audience responding to "Burning Down the House" and "Road to Nowhere" is almost tear-jerkingly euphoric.
American Utopia looks both inward and outward, with Byrne ruminating on his own fears and anxieties before reaching out with open arms, imploring us to connect with our planet and each other. It’s unashamedly earnest and uncool, and perhaps, if maybe only for a brief moment, when the show draws to a close, every audience member is on their feet and Byrne reveals a genuine ear-to-ear grin for the first time, that utopian vision of a more compassionate future seems possible.
David Byrne's American Utopia plays at the London Film Festival.
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