TIFF20 REVIEW: David Byrne’s American Utopia [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 105 minutes
    Release Date: October 17th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Home Box Office
    Director(s): Spike Lee
    Writer(s): David Byrne

Us and you.

We open on an illuminated square with a table at its center: the stage from an overhead perspective of which the sold-out crowd at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre is never privy. That’s the appeal of a filmed performance. By setting up cameras and documenting David Byrne‘s 2019 stage show from every angle, director Spike Lee is able to present the minimalist aesthetics and artistry in a way that its original format can’t. And with a through-line message of inclusion and connection, that ability is necessary. Just look at the disparity between races performing beside the former Talking Heads frontman and those dancing in the audience. Byrne needs this film to achieve his goal so that it won’t disappear outside the memory of those who could afford taping date prices.

Does that in turn render David Byrne’s American Utopia a resounding cinematic success? No. Because while its motives are pure and its technical prowess is unmatched, nothing besides the vantage point is changed. If not for Lee cutting in portraits of Black lives lost to police brutality and white supremacy (sometimes held by family members) during “Hell You Talmbout”, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason why an auteur of his pedigree was needed to helm the project except as a producer with the necessary clout to get the ball rolling financially. The real MVP of what we see is the show’s lighting director since their work becomes as indelible a piece to this puzzle as Byrne himself. That’s where the visual intrigue truly lies.

It must be considering the stage is nothing but that aforementioned square flanked on three sides by a floor to ceiling curtain of beaded string serving as a backdrop to giant shadows and the projection of those fallen souls (as well as an image of Colin Kaepernick when the band kneels in solidarity). The curtain becomes a barrier with which Byrne, his instrumentalists, and his accompanying vocalists can interact—popping limbs through, entering and exiting, and, in a brilliant use of light, serving as a cathode ray tube for “I Should Watch TV”. The show is otherwise all about the spotlights. Squares to shift position, circles to illuminate, and beams to cut through the auditorium with dramatic effect until the curtain rises before the encore.

Byrne tells a couple anecdotes and jokes. He also supplies a few facts about voter turnout (with a visual component yet again serviced by light), but not enough to truly do more than pad the runtime between songs. This isn’t some call to arms or educational endeavor regardless of its intent because I’m not sure he says anything that any other politically motivated liberal performer wouldn’t during a stadium show touring the country. In that respect this format loses as much as it gains since our ability to see it unlike the audience also means they saw it in a way we never will. We don’t get the intimacy of the theater and its calibrated acoustics. We don’t get the feeling that Byrne is talking directly to us.

So what do we get? A great show. Byrne mixes solo work from the titular album with Talking Heads hits “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Burning Down the House”, and the show-stopping encore “Road to Nowhere”. He highlights the talent of his band by ensuring we know everything heard was created on-stage and cultivates a look that’s as homogenized (everyone is wearing his trademarked suit) as it is free (all instruments are wireless so everyone can partake in the fun choreography that keeps the show’s energy flowing). The sixty-seven year old (at the time) is more than up to the task of delivering a top-flight performance and ultimately reveals he has many more years of unique melodies to come alongside Brian Eno.

I’ll leave any critique about the show itself to theater reviewers since they are the ones who can elaborate on its strengths. That Lee and company are able to capture its excitement and nuance is a testament to their work, but I just can’t say that the finished product is essential beyond its purpose of transferring a once-in-a-lifetime experience to the masses. For that I’m grateful since American Utopia is a wonderful experience every fan of Byrne and his music should enjoy. Just don’t really expect more than that because doing so is where disappointment might set in. Or maybe I’m just not a big enough fan of the artist’s work to appreciate all that’s on offer. Maybe my casual fandom just doesn’t get it. Hopefully you will.

courtesy of TIFF

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