With live performances returning to some areas of the world recovering from the pandemic, David Byrne shows us what we were missing with American Utopia, directed by veteran filmmaker Spike Lee.
Byrne is mainly known as the frontman for legendary new wave outfit Talking Heads, but also has some filmmaking experience on his resume. Along with many bizarre music videos he helped produce for his band, he has directed and produced some truly off the wall pictures too, with True Stories (1986) being his biggest directorial outing. Byrne and his band are responsible for some of the best new wave, funk rock tunes of the 20th century, really gaining traction in the early to mid 80s, so naturally, a film documenting a live performance of some newer tracks, shot in 2019, garnered interest from Talking Heads and film lovers alike.
Spike Lee needs no introduction, being revered for some incredibly unconventional films throughout his career. Highlights of his include the hilariously offbeat BlacKkKlansman (2018) and his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It, a must watch for fans of lower budget features. Lee is no stranger to documentaries, with Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016) being the closest he has come to a live performance film in his career.
Lee’s love for the genre is really felt here, as the way American Utopia is directed is gorgeously vibrant, with great on-stage coverage. The colours of the performance are eclectic and mesmerising, with the camera crew capturing the detail of the sets and costumes worn by the performers beautifully. The coverage is wonderful, making the stage performance feel more like a scripted film made on a sound stage rather than a live performance, something that you need to remind yourself of many times while seeing the feats achieved on stage here.
David Byrne and his ensemble of musicians and dancers do an impeccable job with some of the biggest and infectiously funky show tunes ever put on stage. Nearly every song is a head-bopper, with Talking Heads fans being immensely satisfied with how their hits are performed. However, the show isn’t afraid to get topical and personal in a few spots too. The Utopia elements that Byrne is clamouring for make one feel mournful and almost dejected knowing that in 2020, none of the hopeful ideas presented here came to fruition. The emotional and sonic highlight being the performance of ‘Hell You Talmbout’, adapted from The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae, in which the performers demand you say the names of some of the victims of senseless police violence throughout America’s modern history. Spike Lee effectively included cutaways to the families of these victims, adding an extra layer of emotion to a highly confronting number.
American Utopia is an absolute blast from beginning to end, with something for even the most jaded of filmgoers. It’s a highly satisfying and gorgeous recording of an incredibly well made stage performance. Let’s hope the two main brains behind this collaborate again in the future.
If you look carefully, you will notice small spheres on the shoulders of all of the suits. These are tiny BlackTrax infrared transmitters which enable the lights to automatically track performers as they move around the stage. When they leave the stage to march through the theatre, you will notice some of these trackers glowing slightly.