'David Byrne's American Utopia' Review: Spike Lee Turns This Stage Show Into a Cinematic Celebration [TIFF 2020]

“Thanks for leaving your house,” David Byrne tells the audience at the start of David Byrne’s American Utopia. He couldn’t have realized it at the time, but the statement is surreal now. This is the opening night film of the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of us can’t leave our houses. I myself am covering the festival remotely, watching American Utopia in my house rather than somewhere nestled into Toronto. It’s not the last time the surreality will take hold, because ultimately, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a show about connections. About reaching out and connecting with others – and it arrives at a time where doing such a thing in person is near impossible. 

A filmed performance of Byrne’s Broadway show, American Utopia comes courtesy of Spike Lee, who didn’t come here to play. It’s unfair to compare this to the filmed version of Hamilton, since the shows are so different, but right from the jump, Lee’s surefire cinematic eye is undeniable as the filmmaker refuses to let the camera sit still, whereas the Disney+ film of the Broadway hit remained kind of stationary for the most part (albeit with a few close-ups). Here, director of photography Ellen Kuras and 11 camera operators are always on the move, and Lee and editor Adam Gough use every single shot they can to its fullest. The end result is not really a filmed stage show but a full-blown film – one bustling with life, energy, and exuberance.

Calling it “feel-good” feels corny, and also isn’t quite right. Unapologetically nerdy and exploding with weird-yet-positive vibes, American Utopia has Byrne and 11 musicians take control of the Hudson Theatre and go wild. The show starts with Byrne, but little by little, more of the performers – all of whom are wearing the same gray-blue suit as Byrne – filter in and join him in the festivities, inhabiting a stage flanked by a chainlink wall that has the ability to resemble falling water or a flickering TV screen.

The result is an experience that feels like many things: a revival meeting; a pep-rally; a museum installation come to life; an interpretive dance class; a nonsense poetry reading; and, of course, a concert – on more than one occasion, the Broadway audience is out of their chairs and on their feet. Through it all, Byrne and company perform songs, some from Byrne’s Talking Head’s days. And Byrne talks. He has a charming, goofy energy – he seems nervous, yet in complete control. We hang on his words, both spoken and sung. He tells us a story about using the money from his first record contract to buy a TV. He tells us a story about how a song he wrote – “Everybody’s Coming to My House” – sounds like it’s an invitation for the houseguests to leave when he sings it, but sounds like a call for company in the hands (and voice) of someone else. “We’re only tourists in this life,” the lyrics tell us.

The awkwardness, and the yearning for company, prevail all throughout American Utopia, which – again – makes the film seem doubly strange. We could all stand a bit of company right now, even the most antisocial of us. “Maybe someday understand them better,” Byrne sings. “The weird things inside of me.” And he tells the crowd (and us): “When I began to think about this, I realized the thing we humans like looking at…is other humans. What if we can eliminate from the stage everything except the stuff we care about the most – what would be left? It would be us. Us, and you. And that’s what the show is.”

Byrne and company stomp, shout, holler, and dance their way through it all, with limber, hypnotic, and often funny choreography by Annie-B Parson. And Lee and his team are there to capture it all. Lee isn’t afraid to get impressionistic – the camera doesn’t always have to stay fixed on Byrne, it can sometimes stray down to his hands, or focus on his looming shadow flung against that chainlink wall. At one point, strobing lights take over, and Lee uses the opportunity to cut to slightly different shots that might not even be perceptible if you’re not paying close attention.

It is an overall joyous experience – infectious, you could say. Even if you don’t love all of the songs – there were a few that did nothing for me, I’ll admit – you’ll get swept up in the energy radiating from Byrne and his group, all of them throwing themselves into this strange, surreal, beautiful show. And as positive and upbeat as the show may be, Byrne isn’t naive. He knows that the world itself is in bad shape – and that’s even before the coronavirus. Near the end, Byrne and company break out a show-stopping cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout.”

Over a pounding, irresistible beat, Byrne and the back-up singers shout out the names of BIPOC killed by violence primarily involving the police – Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Sean Bell, Marielle Franco, Emmett Till, Tommy Yancy, Jordan Baker, and Amadou Diallo are all mentioned. And here, Lee does something stunning – he cuts completely away from the stage, to people holding up blown-up images of the dead individuals as the camera tracks in towards their smiling faces. When the song ends, Lee cuts in photos of three other individuals who were killed in the time since filming – Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. He then cuts again to a wall of names in red letters filling the screen, ending with the coda: “AND TOO MANY MORE.” It’s a chilling, heart-wrenching moment that burns its way through your heart.

With such a statement coming close to the end, is there any hope to be had in David Byrne’s American Utopia? Yes. Byrne reminds us America is a constant work-in-progress, and anything can change. “Every day is a miracle, every day is an unpaid bill,” he sings. “You’ve got to sing for your supper. Love one another.” And he says: “Who we are, is – thankfully – not just here, but it extends beyond ourselves. To the connections between all of us.”

There’s that talk of connection again. Of reaching out. Of trying to find something in other humans worth liking; worth celebrating. It’s an uplifting sentiment, but then again, Byrne and company close the show out with the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere.” It sounds like a comically bleak sentiment to conclude on, but then again, as the song says: “Give us time to work it out.”

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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