David Byrne's American Utopia (2020)

A scene from 'David Byrne's American Utopia' (photo by David Lee/ HBO Studios)

Review

DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA (2020)

Directed by Spike Lee

What started as David Byrne’s seventh studio album in 2018, developed into a hit Broadway show late last year, and now a concert film directed by Spike Lee. “American Utopia” is a revelation that challenges you to sit still as the Talking Heads’ frontman rips through a rousing selection of solo material and favorites from the NYC band he started in the 70s with Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison. Accompanied by 11 musicians from around the world and performed in front of a live audience at New York’s famed Hudson Theater (pre-COVID), Byrne tackles the issues facing our troubled nation with a message; “Watch out you might get what you're after.” Don’t forget to vote!

Gone is the big white suit worn by Byrne in Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” — shot in 1983 as The Talking Heads were touring behind “Speaking in Tongues” — it has been replaced by a nice fitted gray suit, business casual attire (no shoes required) for this talented group of wireless musicians.

Beautifully captured by Spike Lee and D.O.P. Ellen Kuras, the camera moves fluidly through the Hudson Theater zooming in and out at just the right time, never straying too far from Byrne flanked by singer-dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. Nice overhead shots highlight the choreography by Annie-B Parson as the musicians move with the precision of an award-winning marching band.

Starting with the song “Here” from Byrne’s solo album “American Utopia” the playlist features selections from the 2018 album and Talking Heads favorites including “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House.” As the show moves forward, the momentum builds like a whistling teapot reaching full boil with a finale of “Road to Nowhere” that finds Byrne and the cast marching through the audience like crazed pied pipers.

In between songs Byrne drops monologues that cover racial injustice, voter rights, immigration, climate change, and the division in America. He explains to the crowd that he asked Janelle Monáe for permission before ripping into a passionate version of her protest song “Hell You Talmbout'' as the names of Black Americans killed by police and vigilantes are chanted followed by a powerful “Say His Name” or “Say Her Name” chorus. Pictures of Ric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Botham Jean, and Freddie Gray are flashed on the screen as the audience sings the chorus.

“American Utopia” is a portrait of a troubled country but with a message of hope. It’s exhilarating, thought-provoking, and guaranteed to make you want to stand up and dance. We don’t have to settle for “Same as it ever was” we have the power to right the wrongs and it begins with your voice on November 3rd.

(4 stars)

Premieres on HBO tonight and available to stream on HBO MAX on Sunday, October 18

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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