David Byrne is no stranger to starring in concert films. In 1983, as frontman of Talking Heads, he appeared in the acclaimed Stop Making Sense. Now he stars in his very own: American Utopia, courtesy of director Spike Lee. The result is something that is stripped back yet ultimately brimming with authenticity.
For American Utopia, Byrne wanted to rid the stage of everything except the bare essentials – those things that really mattered. What was left was a tight, eleven-strong collection of musicians, singers and dancers, as well as the all important audience.
The artists all carry their own instruments, and most play a variety of them throughout the show. They wear head-set mics but none of this comes at the expense of the sound, which is full-bodied, infectious and raw.
Byrne and his band are all wearing the same costume: a grey suit and shirt along with bare feet. This frees them up for their performance. They shimmy, circle and sway about the stage bringing choreographer Annie-B Parson’s moves to electrifying life. The stage is dressed with a backdrop that’s a similar colour to their outfits, focusing your attention solely on the performers.
Lee has done an excellent job of capturing all the different moods and textures in this piece. With cinematographer, Ellen Kuras’ fine work, the band are captured from 11 different angles. It makes you feel like you have a front row seat to this innovative show, which originally appeared on Broadway and is set to make a return in 2021.
Fans both old and new will enjoy the musical selection. There are cuts from his 2018 studio album, as well as Talking Heads classics like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning down the House.” “Psycho Killer” however, failed to make the cut.
Byrne’s music is amazing and speaks to the human condition. By showcasing his old and new material, viewers are both entertained and celebrate his journey and evolution as an artist. There are many fantastic moments but the most incendiary song of the night was a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout.”, performed with Monae’s blessing. The band’s vocals soar like a gospel choir as they sing about some of the African Americans who have been tragically killed in the US. Lee adds photographs, which makes for especially powerful viewing. He also adds the names of the recently deceased George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
American Utopia is vibrant, artistic and clever. It makes up for its lack of bells and whistles with its powerful sense of energy and spontaneity. This is one concert film that will certainly get everybody talking.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
David Byrne’s American Utopia opens in cinemas on November 26.