Watching David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, I was reminded just how much I miss live music and the theatre. It’s a filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway show, named after Byrne’s 2018 album. American Utopia ran at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway from October 2019 to February of this year. The filmed version of the show played during the 2020 New York Film Festival (NYFF58), and makes its debut on HBO this weekend.
I’ve been moved to tears by a lot of unexpected things during the pandemic. Empty bars and shuttered restaurants strike me with an uncontrollable sadness. While reading, little lines will catch me off guard. I teared up over Rebecca Solnit’s succinct observation in April that “We are in the middle and the end is not in sight.” Ditto Lily Meyer’s review of Zadie Smith’s COVID essay collection. Meyer advocated against intellectual assuredness in quick-response art, arguing instead for hesitant, inelegant thought regarding the future of our upended world: “What true story besides an uncertain, unbeautiful one is there to write?”
I teared up a lot throughout American Utopia. It made me miss a lot of things I love about going out in New York. Between songs, Byrne waxes about daily life and the state of the country. At one point he talks about the joys of observing people’s faces, an experience unlike observing a bike or another inanimate object. The homespun phenomenology occurs over the incipient keyboards of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” my favorite song by any artist. With simplicity, Byrne declares, “Looking at people--that’s the best!”
Cue “This Must Be the Place,” my sobs.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Director: Spike Lee
Release Date: October 17, 2020 (HBO Max)
The staging of American Utopia invites comparison to Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s classic Talking Heads concert film from 1984. Stop Making Sense began with a barren stage that Byrne walks onto, with each song gradually building toward a fully produced Talking Heads show. American Utopia, by contrast, begins within the confines of the stage and then slowly breaks down the barriers between the performers and the audience.
During the opening number, “Here,” Byrne sits at a table in a constricted space. On three sides there is a curtain of silver chain, and before him the audience. Byrne holds a model of a brain, noting the function of different parts while simultaneously alluding to people in search of connection and meaning. It’s like a musical Spalding Gray monologue. Two featured dancers (Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo) arrive in matching gray suits, followed not long after by nine more musicians rigged with harnesses to support the weight of their wireless instruments. There are a dozen people on stage throughout American Utopia. No one is fixed in once place for long. They dance in lines and in circles and in pinwheel formation, all the while in sync. Multiple percussionists layer polyrhythms over art-funk basslines, complemented by guitar harmonics, licks, and muted strums. Looking at these people for 105 minutes--that’s the best.
American Utopia might be viewed as a pre-pandemic time capsule. What a carefree time everyone is having, or at least comparatively carefree. Life during a nationwide institutional collapse seems preferable to our current proto-apocalypse. When Lee shoots the musicians from behind, you can see the warm red glow of exit signs in the black expanse of the house. When Byrne kicks into the X-Press 2 track “Lazy,” the silhouetted heads of the audience rise from their seats. Huddled close, they bob and clap and singalong. It’s moving to see people close together again, sharing memories in the dark and making new ones together.
Lee’s direction is mostly straightforward, focusing on the performers and allowing them to convey the energy and emotion on stage. There’s the occasional top-down view to admire the geometric choreography and light design, and steadycam shots that drift around the musicians, but we mostly watch unobtrusively through the silver links of curtain or by the sound board and the edges of the stage. This functional approach makes stylistic shifts stand out. Lee shoots the chorus of “Dance Like This” in black and white and with Dutch angles, complementing the churning metal riff. Direct shots of audience members are held until late in the performance as the divide between stage and seats dissolves.
The biggest formal shift occurs during the cover of Janelle Monae’s Black Lives Matter anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” As Byrne and company list the names of murdered black men and women, Lee shows their photos, dates of birth, and dates of death on screen. Sometimes the images of the dead are held up by surviving loved ones while the camera tracks in purposefully. At the end of the song, Lee fills the screen with more recent names since the show ended in February: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The text that follows lists more lives lost, and acknowledges that there are so many more names than these.
As much as I enjoyed David Byrne’s American Utopia, I sometimes felt conflicted. The reminders of death and white supremacy are just part of it. The whole stage show is a work of immense uplift, but it was performed before the country fell even further from its previously cruddy state. Yes, I got swept up in the dadaist feels of “Every Day is a Miracle” and those Talking Heads hits, but months of isolation lent an air of melancholy to “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” Byrne jokes that he heard a cover by the Detroit School of Arts’ Vocal Jazz Ensemble that sounds joyous about having company over; his version, by contrast, sounds anxious about the whole idea. Seven months into lockdown, the song seems wistful: “Now everybody’s coming to my house / And I’m never gonna be alone / And everybody’s coming to my house / And they’re never gonna go back home.” How long it will be until we’re able to take those words for granted?
Even the mainstream liberal politics seem dated just a few months out. In an anecdote about volunteering, Byrne says he got voters to sign pledges that they will in fact vote on election day. It’s great and all, but what’s a pledge in the face of hours-long voting lines in Georgia, or Texas Republicans limiting access to ballot drop-off stations? Byrne even mentions how bad voter turnout is in normal circumstances, and that the average voting age is 57. After mentioning the threat of climate change, Byrne quips to the audience, “Kids, you’re f**ked.” Yet in a different moment he proclaims, “I believe we can do with this country something that hasn’t been done before.” Can we really vote our way out of this given all the institutional shortcomings and hurdles, and given the urgency? With irony and earnestness, Byrne acknowledges this maddening quirk of American democracy that prompts so much pessimism and hope.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Byrne remarked of pandemic life, “Like a lot of people, there were mornings when I’d wake up, stare at the ceiling and ask myself, ‘What am I doing today… and why?’ There have been moments where you start to wonder what it is all for.” It’s fitting for the upbeat show and for our downtrodden times that David Byrne’s American Utopia closes on “Road to Nowhere.” Try to name a more cheerful song about hurtling toward doom. (Sorry, REM.) The silver curtain on stage is lifted, and the bare, unbeautiful walls of the theatre are visible. It’s at this point that the show cannot be confined to the stage, and Byrne and company make their way into the audience. For me it’s a moment that screams, “Don’t worry, kids, you’re not the only ones who are f**ked--we’re all f**ked!”
Maybe the whole notion of an American utopia is mere idealism, not an optimistic goal to strive for but a purely theoretical one that can’t be realized. Too many competing interests, too much division, and the common tissue necessary to bring such disparate lives together is more complicated than the corpus callosum that separates the hemispheres of the brain. Yet some persist in creating works like American Utopia that make this impossible state seem just a little more possible, even for a minute or two. There’s something hopeful in the fact people haven’t given up quite yet.