David Byrne’s American Utopia doesn’t burn down the house

Pop trumps art in Spike Lee’s doc of David Byrne’s feelgood Broadway concert show.

10 December 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

Sight and Sound

▶︎ David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on Amazon Prime, Now TV and other digital platforms, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 11 January 2020.

At one point in American Utopia, Spike Lee’s concert film of David Byrne’s Broadway production of the same name, Byrne namechecks the Dada movement, and performs a brief snippet of Kurt Schwitters’s Sonate in Urlauten, or ‘primordial sonata’, a work delivered in a jarring, alien-sounding musical language of Schwitters’s own invention. “It goes on like that for about 40 minutes,” Byrne tells the crowd, earning a nervous laugh, then stating that if he’d performed it in full, “It’d be a different kind of movie.”

The kind of movie that American Utopia in fact is, is a crowd-pleaser. Byrne, performing with an 11-person ensemble made up of members with origins in North America, South America and Europe, performs a setlist of tunes drawn from his more than 40-year career, with priority given to tracks from his 2018 album of the same title, the concert tour for which provided a rough draft for the staging of the Broadway show. Byrne and his band are all equipped with wireless equipment that allows them to roam the stage of the Hudson Theatre freely, and to perform the choreography devised by Annie-B Parson, co-founder of New York City’s Big Dance Theater. Byrne’s own stiff, herky-jerky, exaggeratedly awkward physicality is obviously a large influence in this department – think the chopping-down-the-forearm gesture from the Once in a Lifetime music video – as are college marching-band formations, caught by director Lee in occasional God’s-eye-view compositions taken from the rafters.

Lee seems to have approached his work here with the intention of allowing the live performance to be seen with a maximum of fidelity and clarity, adding cinematic grace notes here and there for impact – most notably, during a performance of Janelle Monáe’s rhythmic protest song Hell You Talmbout, which includes a “Say their name” call-and-response section featuring a litany of names of Black Americans killed in police encounters or episodes of racial violence, these accompanied by cutaways to pictures of the dead, in many cases held by family members.

The stage is generally undressed save for the chain-link curtains that provide its permeable borders, allowing for a fuller focus on the performers, each of whom emerges with an individual personality – an aim that Byrne makes express in one of the brief monologues with which he dots the show.

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

Implicit in Byrne’s citations of Schwitters and Hugo Ball are that his intentions with his American Utopia are not unlike those of the Dadaists in the interwar period: to present a considered artistic response to a world on the brink, in this case, specifically, Trump-era America. Byrne, an early 70s art-school kid who met his Talking Heads bandmate Chris Frantz at the Rhode Island School of Design and who has always displayed a multi-hyphenate’s magpie curiosity, has long had a knack for connecting gallery art concepts to pop idioms. It’s difficult to imagine the wonderstruck perspective turned towards the quotidian landscape of American suburbia that’s found in his 1986 feature directorial debut True Stories, for example, without previous reflections along the same lines from the likes of the photographers Stephen Shore and William Eggleston.

Byrne’s wide-eyed affection for roadside Americana made him closer kin to his Stop Making Sense (1984) director Jonathan Demme than to either of those figures, or to more unnerving contemporary observers of suburban mores like David Lynch and Eric Fischl – and so the Dadaists seem a million miles away from American Utopia. Rather than responding to the incoherence of a hostile and unintelligible world with affrontive, insouciant nonsense, Byrne offers hopeful, clear-cut solutions to America’s national malaise in the form of familiar protest gestures, exhorting his audience to get out the vote and taking a knee in front of the projected image of Colin Kaepernick.

In American Utopia there is little of the fraught, anxiety-wrought, underfed-looking Byrne of Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music in evidence, only a canonised elder statesman playing the hits for a big-ticket Manhattan crowd perfectly receptive to his amen-corner messaging, all filmed with panache by another middle-aged pro who has amassed a considerable personal fortune through for-hire commercial works. Despite the inconstant quality of the setlist here compared to that of Stop Making Sense, the band swings, and I can only imagine the movie would sound fantastic in a cinema, where few will have the opportunity to see it in 2020. It is all so smartly made and bright and buoyant, in a way that I am sure will be a comfort to many amid current turmoil, and so self-consciously positioned in such reassuring ways as the Movie We Need Right Now as to feel wholly out-of-touch.

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