“If there was a song Spike Lee loved, we’d see him pop up in the aisle”: David Byrne on his concert doc American Utopia

With coronavirus halting live music, it’s the perfect time for a concert film from one of the giants of the genre: David Byrne.

9 December 2020

By Leonie Cooper

David Byrne and Spike Lee
Sight and Sound

▶︎ David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on digital platforms from 14 December 2020 and on Blu-ray and DVD from 11 January 2021.

Thirty-six years after Talking Heads and director Jonathan Demme changed the idea of what a live concert film could be, with the kinetic Stop Making Sense (1984), the band’s former frontman and elder statesman of alternative rock, David Byrne, is back to do it all over again.

This time Spike Lee is in the director’s chair, capturing the acclaimed Broadway stage show of Byrne’s 2018 album American Utopia. In a captivating blast of positivity and creativity, Byrne and his 11-strong barefoot backing band race through 100 minutes of deftly choreographed set pieces, mixing Talking Heads classics – Road to Nowhere, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), Once in a Lifetime – with Byrne’s solo work.

Though filmed in late 2019, the show’s themes are prescient: the treatment of Black Americans at the hands of US police and an impending election loom large – but so does hope for change.

American Utopia (2020)

Why did you want Spike Lee on this project?

We’ve never really worked together, but we’ve crossed paths a lot – so it was easy, I had his phone number! Also, because of a lot of the issues that are brought up in the show, I thought, ‘He’s gonna get this.’

When did you first meet?

It would have been in the 80s. In a sense we were coming up together on parallel paths, me in music, him in film and somehow I got invited to the premiere of Do the Right Thing… this was a really huge step in filmmaking; in the visual approach and the way he’s talking about issues. I felt that there was a lot of nuance in it. It wasn’t just a clear-cut didactic sermon.

Since filming are the two of you closer?

We’ve gone on bike rides together. He goes around Central Park; that’s kind of his go-to thing, so we meet up and do that.

You recorded two shows for the film where was Spike during the performances?

In the basement of the theatre there were a bunch of monitors set up so he could see what all the cameras were getting. He’d be down there with the editor and then if there was a song he loved, we’d see him suddenly pop up in the aisle.

David Byrne and his band on stage in David Byrne’s American Utopia

Why revisit the concert film format?

Like Stop Making Sense, I think it has an arc. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end. The lead character, that would be me, or whoever I’m playing, goes on a journey. You start in one place and you end up somewhere quite quite different. I realised that this show, like that one, is not simply us just performing a series of songs, ending with our biggest hit. It’s really constructed to take the audience somewhere.

Did you learn anything from Stop Making Sense that you put into action or avoided for this film?

Absolutely. Some of them were just really practical – if you put too much light on the audience, rather than capturing their Broadway babies: David Byrne and Spike Lee excitement, they’ll clam up. Suddenly they’ll stop dancing. That happened on one of the nights we were filming Stop Making Sense and I realised: ‘OK, never do that again.’

In the show you cover Hell You Talmbout, a Janelle Monáe song about murdered Black Americans and police brutality. How do you feel knowing that things haven’t got any better since filming?

It’d be easy to get depressed about it, and say, ‘Why do we have to keep saying this over and over and over again.’ But since George Floyd and the demonstrations, I think there’s more of an awareness of injustices. It’s something people talk about and acknowledge more than they used to. So, knock on wood, that might lead to action.

You also talk about asking people to register for the 2016 US election. Are you hoping your words will resonate for the 2020 race?

Exactly. There’s a lot of voter suppression and chicanery in this country, but if that can happen, I think we have a chance of people being heard and the concerns that they have being dealt with more than they have recently.

I notice you don’t tell people who to vote for.

I’m determined to be non-partisan about it. I never want to tell people how to think, but I want you to participate.

David Byrne’s favourite film scores

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Composer: Michel Legrand

“Everybody’s singing all the time, describing very mundane situations and actions. So rather than the typical Hollywood or Broadway thing where everyone comes together for a big musical number, the music is really woven in in a different way.”

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Composer: Various

“I watched a documentary the other day on 2001 – of course, [Kubrick] just picked things that existed, but now it’s impossible to think of those scenes without that music.”

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Composer: Jack Nitzsche

“There’s this beautiful theme – and it’s by a keyboard player and arranger who worked with The Rolling Stones and all these other groups. There was a musical saw that played the complete melody in one of the themes and the quavering sound was kind of perfect for the mental institution.”

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Composer: Bill Lee

“That had a great score – and used some pop songs too. At that point Spike was working with his dad [double-bass player Bill Lee]. He used to play with all the folk musicians in the 1960s but when Dylan had them all go electric, he refused and said, ‘No, this is my sound.’”

Under the Skin (2013)

Composer: Mica Levi

“Mica’s a young musician who’s done some really, really interesting scoring. It’s all about the mood and creating a very unsettling mood with sounds that you can’t readily identify. It’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s an orchestra or here’s a tinkling piano’ – you don’t know what it is. It’s very ominous.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Inside the mind of Christopher Nolan Plus: The Zone of Interest – All of Us Strangers – American Fiction – Wim Wenders – Marc Isaacs – The Kitchen – Samsara – Alice Guy-Blaché

Get your copy

Other things to explore

World of influence

From The Descent to Caspar David Friedrich: the influences on Stone Age horror Out of Darkness

By Sam Wigley

From The Descent to Caspar David Friedrich: the influences on Stone Age horror Out of Darkness

“Why does a guy like me dream about making a western?”: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka

By Arjun Sajip

“Why does a guy like me dream about making a western?”: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka

How Britain got its groove back: the return of Cymande

By Leigh Singer

How Britain got its groove back: the return of Cymande