By Cameron Kaercher
Although David Byrne is a musician, he has made many notable contributions to the silver screen. His 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense,” directed by future “Silence of the Lambs” helmer Johnathan Demme, is considered to be one of the greatest musical movies of all time by critics such as Leonard Maltin and Robert Christgau. A couple of years later in 1986, Byrne stepped behind the camera to write and direct “True Stories;” not a blockbuster smash at the time, but it has since found its cult following.
Byrne has returned to the concert film platform under the direction of Spike Lee.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is a cinematic adaptation of Byrne’s 2019 broadway show. The core of the show is adapted from his 2018 solo album, also titled “American Utopia,” with songs lifted from his time with his rock band Talking Heads. Throughout the film, Byrne takes the audience through a tour of his incredible discography.
He knows fans would freak out if he forgot to perform “Burning Down the House” or “Once in a Lifetime.”
Byrne seems to replicate the little bit of structure that “Stop Making Sense” had. Both films start off with just Byrne on stage with a single prop. This time, he trades in his acoustic guitar for a plastic toy brain. He gives a monologue about how as babies, we have thousands of more neurological connections than as we do as adults. Why is that so? He hopes to find those connections by bringing out his incredible band. He does so slowly, just like “Stop Making Sense,” it takes five songs to get everyone together, and then it is off to the races.
No songs feel like they have been done and redone for the past decades because of Byrne’s revolutionary staging. The entire drum kit is broken down into single instruments that are worn by percussionists. The single drummer is replaced with six musicians that each focus on a specific beat. That group is added with the keyboardist, guitarist, bass player, two vocalists and Byrne himself to create a marching band practically on acid. The icing on top is all the instruments and microphones are wireless, which in turn allow everyone to move freely throughout the stage.
The examples of free-flowing choreography are too many to fully get into; the impossibly electrifying “I, Zimbra” produces a relentless drum circle, “Bullet” grooves smoothly, as the whole band marches around the perimeter of the stage with Byrne serving as the focal point of the action, and the gleeful prancing of “Every Day is a Miracle” matches the full of praise lyrics.
All of the musicians are identically dressed in gray suits and bare feet. In a profile with The New York Times, Byrne said of the suits, “I thought plain but elegant suits would unify us and help reveal us as a tribe, a community.” It is a fun contradictory wardrobe as it is both formal and casual. The lack of shoes also lends a sense of tactility to the choreography, as the cameras watch the performers jump up and down every once in a while.
Speaking of which, the camera work, directed by Spike Lee, puts this summer’s “Hamilton” recording to shame. He runs the camera through the stage, around it, and at times above it in a clear homage to the classic Busby Burkley musicals. It becomes perfectly clear why Lee took up this project during the performance of Janelle Monáe’s protest song, “Hell You Talmbout.”
Monáe’s lyrics have two components; the names of people who were killed by police brutality, and the mantra “say their name.” It is an overwhelming piece of music that Lee transforms as he edits in shots of photos of those who were killed being held by their relatives. The song was contemporary during the 2019 performance, and it became even more important during the editing process. At the end of the song, Lee includes Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.
A strong, and contemporary theme in the show is voting. Before performing “Toe Jam,” Byrne speaks about voter turnout rates in America. In local elections, he notes that it is only 20% and visually shows that by lighting up a sliver of the audience with a spotlight. It is a phenomenal visual that reminds the viewer of one way we are far away from a utopia.
The power of “David Byrne’s American Utopia” is addictive. After the credits roll, you will be hearing the songs repeat in your head rent-free. One could experience involuntary, uncontrollable spasms as they keep tapping their toes to a silent beat. It proves that sometimes the best movies do not need a story, but just strong emotion throughout, to make the audience feel something real.