Rating: 4.5 stars
For the last couple of decades David Byrne has become this legendary elusive figure, often sighted riding his bike in New York. He is like the cool uncle who taught you to appreciate art.
I often think about what Byrne is doing at any given moment. How is he coping with lockdown? Did he try to make sourdough bread? Does he sometimes call another artist friend and the two spend hours discussing mundanities like two curious aliens and playing their homemade tubas or something?
The Talking Heads always had this elating curiosity about modern society that was refreshing in the 80s. Like he was trying to play with us, finding humour and excitement in every single detail. It was both frantic and absurdist, culminating in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, a surreal spectacle of electrifying energy that brought an apolitical flavour to art.
But the world changed since then. Police brutality, fascist demagogues all over the world, Silicon Valley tech-bro billionaires building spaceships, and apparently there’s a pandemic around. What was going through David Byrne’s mind during all this?
The answer was American Utopia, a good, if uneven album, supported by a successful limited-run Broadway show that helped to contextualise the music. Mixing some of the Talking Heads, it features Byrne and his band in a stage surrounded by a wall of chains. Unencumbered by cords, the band can move anywhere in the stage. It’s just them and the instruments attached to them, giving them the liberty to express themselves with movement and the choreography by Annie-B Pearson.
This time with the label of a Spike Lee joint, David Byrne’s American Utopia is unlike any concert film you’ve seen. Part gig, part post-modern ballet, part art installation, part autobiography, every song is treated like a unique entity. In between Byrne talks about what got him there, his past, his worries, his art.
In one of the many charming moments he says how a choir of children turned his hit Everybody’s Coming To My House into a positive, inclusive song that celebrates multiculturalism.
In a way, David Byrne’s American Utopia is the perfect follow-up to Stop Making Sense. In Demme’s film Byrne, wearing a ridiculous oversized grey suit is like an excited child who relies on his spontaneity to ask us to, well, stop making sense of things. Now Byrne is still wearing a grey suit, but it’s clean and well-fitted, the choreography calculated, and the band a proudly mesh of races of nationalities who are given equal status next to Byrne.
Lee was the right choice to visually translate Byrne’s art to the screen. Also a New Yorker, he treats each song with the visual treatment it deserves, never doing the same trick twice. He accompanies the musical as per osmosis to the point that, like in Stop Making Sense, it is one of those cases where I think watching the film is better than having been there.
In the emotional climax of the show, Byrne plays a cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout”, a cry to remember the victims of police brutality. Lee follows-up by cutting to shots of the mother’s victim holding their photograph, thus cutting away from the art piece at the moment when art stopped being the most important thing. I doubt this would cross the mind of 1980s David Byrne, but today it is the ethos behind his work. A message that even those who don’t know Byrne’s work can connect and rally behind. What a triumph.