The first thing you should do when you’re ready to watch “David Byrne American Utopia” – and you should watch this cheerful concert movie by Spike Lee – is to clear a space in front of your TV. Move any chairs, pillows, tables and cats out of the way. Check your voice, crank volume, press play. It can take a few songs to move each of your parts. But you can bounce yourself until Byron and Company do “this must be the place (nave melody)”.
In a different reality, you can dance in the cinema wing. But while “American Utopia” will look great on the big screen, the joy of this movie is how well it works (plays). It’s a beautiful, intelligent visual entertainment – you don’t want to watch and just listen – but at home, at least, it has a comfortable intimacy, due to the quotidian aspect of TV. Importantly, Byron is vaguely considered if there is a fully self-conscious presence, and how this one-time and future art-school child continues to move forward like a rock star like Mr. Rogers.
This quality of intimacy also comes from Lee and how he adapted the show, which opened on Broadway in October 2019 on compliment reviews, closing four months after a limited run. (The return engagement is planned for September 2021.) Invited to direct a screen version by Byron, Lee shot the film in February with a small army that included the director of photography, Alan Kuras, and 11 additional camera operators. It must have gotten quite crowded at the Hudson Theater, which was obviously packed. You listen and sometimes see members of the audience, though for the most part, Lee skillfully focuses on what’s going on on stage.
The show originated in Byron’s 2018 album, “American Utopia”, which he soon envisioned on stage. Arrogance was pleasantly easy, the results were rather more involved. The movie sticks to the basics of the show: Byron and his small battalion perform at least 20 songs on the bare stage using minimal props. Everyone wears the same, closely made shark-gray suits and shirts, the kind of talent you can see at the agency parade; Button-down Byron of course all its buttons buttons. The formal formality of these uniforms, however, is surrounded by the amusing fact that almost all the performers are barefoot, as if they were just strolling on a beach.
The mixed message created by the suits and legs creates slight discrepancies that constantly vibrate like strings. This works well with Bayer’s quixotic personality and the dynamic contrast of the show, which simply tugs between formal formality and informality, seriousness and playfulness, irony and sincerity, as the performers dance and on stage (and sometimes off) March does. Questions keep lengthening even when players do a “toe jam” (one of Byron’s collaborations in the lineup), and Lee Tarantino is completely gone, filling the screen with close-ups of enviable pedicure feet.
Given how Lee completely closes the gap between you and the cast, he’s surprised he didn’t even cut his socks. Some filming stage shows die on screen due to a severe lack of visual energy and invention. Lee, the master of this art, uses the plasticity of cinema to complement this creation, bringing it to life in two dimensions. Using different camera angles – the first image is an overhead shot of Byron – Lee shows you parts of the show that would normally only be seen by the theater crew. Other times, when a camera dives in with my musicians and dancers, you fluidly switch to one of the cast and start grooming on the syncaped beat.
“American Utopia” flows beautifully, with a lineup of songs that transport you in a timely manner (1977, Here I Come) just pulling you forward (Hello, 2018). While this helps keep the catastrophic situation at bay, the audience’s overwhelming reception for the Talking Heads standard “once in a lifetime” can make you self-conscious. (Okay, Boomers.) Among the many songs, Byrne talks about this and that, cabaret-style characters that add to the general well-being. He talks about voting, introduces the band, worries the audience. At one point, he and Lee pierced your heart with a version of Janelle Moni’s song “Hell You Tellout”. The pain is painful.
Above all, Lee and Byrne held the reins with extreme faith, which can be rejected as a business strategy but seems like an underlying morality. “In the beginning of the American utopia,” Byrne thanked theatergoers for “leaving your home.” I felt a pain when he did. The show closed a month before many American cities moved to Lockdown, and since then I’ve barely moved out of my neighborhood. Initially, after watching this movie, I felt jealous of the audience, they were all breathing with the same air. Then I entered the David Byrne stream, and boomed with it: “Everybody’s coming to my house” / I’ll never be alone / And I’ll never go back home. “
David Byrne American Utopia
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Look at HBO and HBO Max.