American Utopia review – David Byrne and Spike Lee’s concert film is a real joy

It’s impossible to get into a review of American Utopia without first mentioning Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads movie regarded by many – including yours truly – as the greatest concert film ever made. Directed brilliantly by Jonathan Demme, Stop Making Sense was a kind of audio-visual protest against a bewildering postmodern world hopelessly trying to make sense of itself. It was also a joyous celebration of performance and community, the kind of musical film that makes you want to jump up and dance along.

Credit: BFI

I’m happy to report that American Utopia – the film version of ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Broadway performance of the same name, directed by Spike Lee – is more of the same. Once again, Byrne’s anxious, parodic lyrics are sung over tunes that mix elements of funk, punk and art pop, with tons of percussion. There’s a decent amount of newer songs, including five from the 2018 album American Utopia, but the meat of the show is vintage Talking Heads material. This is not an issue: those hits have lost none of their power. There’s probably still no song about the disorienting disappointments of the American Dream as brilliant as “Once in a Lifetime”. Here, it’s as funny, biting and weirdly euphoric as ever.  

Byrne performs alongside eleven other musicians, all barefoot and dressed in matching grey suits. He’s still a vivid performer and, better than that, a generous one who knows when to take a back seat and let the others shine. The band are clearly having a blast, most of all backing singer-dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, whose infectious energy threatens to steal the show from Byrne entirely.

Credit: BFI

Spike Lee’s direction is more invasive than Demme’s was on Stop Making Sense – the camera roams the stage more, and periodically cuts to bird’s-eye shots emphasising Annie-B Parson’s slick choreography – but remains fairly anonymous for a lot of the film. It’s only when Byrne leads a cover of Janelle Monáe’s Black Lives Matter protest song “Hell You Talmbout” that Lee’s influence can really be felt – as the band chants the names of African-Americans killed by police, the director cuts away to family members holding posters of victims of police violence, with their names on screen. It’s not subtle and somewhat jars with the rest of the film, but that’s exactly the point.

Byrne’s newer songs are faithful to the themes of alienation and artifice found in so many of his older lyrics, but the title’s allusion to utopia isn’t ironic. In brief interludes between songs Byrne crafts a narrative about the quest for connection and community. Some are sweet, some are insightful, and some, truth be told, are a little bit cringe. Digressions on the value of immigrants to America and the importance of voting are well-meaning, but they’re hardly doing anything to challenge the middle-aged, presumably overwhelmingly liberal New York audience in attendance. The true utopian drive here comes from the music itself, and from simply seeing bodies in ecstatic motion.

David Byrne’s American Utopia screened at London Film Festival on 14 October 2020.