Yes, every American should be forced to watch David Byrne’s American Utopia.
I’m hesitant to start with the film’s (which opens this year’s Toronto International Film Festival) most striking moment. Only because what makes it so striking is how most of the production, directed with a masterstroke by Spike Lee, just feels so full of joy. But it’s near the end, when Byrne performs Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” (which he makes clear was done with 100 percent encouragement from Monáe), which results in Byrne (and his phenomenal band) saying the names of the far too many Black people who were killed by police. What’s really striking is Byrne stopped performing in February of this year, so it’s impossible to watch without thinking, my god, there are so many more since then, before a graphic is added to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many many more. It’s a powerful moment in what is one of the best concert films I’ve seen in a long time.
But that’s the thing, right? David Byrne is kind of known for his genius when it comes to live performances on film. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is the echelon of concert films, and Byrne, trying to capture the essence of his recent Broadway show, enlisted Spike Lee. Byrne has a knack for picking the right directors for these projects. (Well, when he’s not directing himself, as he did with 1986’s True Stories.)
One of my biggest recent regrets is not seeing Byrne’s stage show in person. It’s one of those things that I just always thought I’d have time to do later, then never did. (Though, I sort of came close when I got to see Byrne live, from the audience, as the musical performer on SNL right before the whole world shut down. Which was fantastic, but two songs does not give this show justice.) I even had the whole night planned out in my head, with some pre and post drinks at one of my favorite bars in New York City, Jimmy’s Corner, which was right across the street. (Jimmy’s Corner was owned by boxing legend Jimmy Glenn, who was always there hanging out, with a friendly word for whoever came in. Glenn, sadly, died from Covid-19 in May.)
Though, in retrospect, maybe not. Because what Byrne and Lee have brought us is so exhilarating as a film, maybe this is the way it has to be seen. True, I don’t have much of a choice now. And, yes, I’m trying to make myself feel better that I could have seen this live and for some reason didn’t. But this is what we have now as the historical record – and what a historical record it is.
Early in the show Bryne give a monologue about how we grow dumber as we get older. As he puts it, “a plateau of stupidity.” Or, at least, the human brain loses the cognitive connections that a child’s brain is born with. As we get older, we just lose the connections we don’t use or need. I have no idea if this is true, but I’ll take Byrne’s word for it because there are sure a lot of adults doing a lot of stupid things of late. Most of the show is a stunning, live performance of Byrne’s 2018 album American Utopia, with a few classic Talking Heads songs sprinkled in – in just the right places and done in a way that fits perfectly with the confines of the show.
Two points here: First, Byrne relays a story in which there was some doubt that the band is actually playing live, and that flawlessly, on every track every night, which he strenuously and effectively dispels. Second, it’s still kind of funny to see the audience burst out of their seats anytime a Talking Heads song is played, just like any other concert. “Oh, ‘Burning Down the House’! Oh yeah, I know this one!”
There’s something whimsical and magical about the whole thing. It is designed to make the viewer feel good. It almost feels like being in an elementary school class, learning some nice and sweet lessons from this nice man. Obviously, Byrne’s speech at the beginning about the human brain is there for a reason. He’s not telling you to think like a kid. But by pointing all this out, it subconsciously makes us do just that. And in between the nice songs, he gives is a lesson that only 20 percent of people vote in local elections. Going as far to point out 20 percent of his audience, then telling the rest that the 20 percent are making all the decisions for them and their families. It’s both infuriating and delicate.
And, again, that’s why it hits like such a hammer by the time we get to “Hell You Talmbout.” By that point, our brains have almost been temporarily rewired to use those connections we may have lost, which causes a visceral reaction that’s different and hard to explain. Though, what a year for Spike Lee. Between Da 5 Bloods and David Byrne’s American Utopia, a good argument could be made that 2020 turned out to be not just one of his finest years as a filmmaker, but a year we desperately needed his voice. And, through fate, here it is. And what he did was make a concert film for the ages.
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