David Byrne’s American Utopia is a utopia worth dissecting
Now’s probably as good a time as any to alert you, reader, that I never saw American Utopia during its theatrical run. Considering it toured next-door at Emerson’s Colonial Theatre, it’s a big regret, naturally: I’m a fan of Talking Heads (who isn’t?); I consider Stop Making Sense to be one of my favorite movies; David Byrne, for me, is something of a prophet, someone whom I believe any young pupil interested in the delicate, overlapping line of musicianship & performance art should focus their impressionable minds on. Byrne really is a prophet, huh? He spearheaded one of the most influential albums in music history (talking about — what else? — Remain in Light). He, with the legendary Jonathan Demme, conceived the greatest concert film of all time in Stop Making Sense, which one famous writer declared “lightning in a bottle.” He helped pave the way for the integration of world music into most American music genres. Byrne’s a creative prophet unlike anyone to grace the recording studio, stage, and even the director’s chair at one point, in 1986. Unfortunately, as the show came to Boston, my wallet cried out to me, so I did not go. Viewing Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia is the closest I’ll come to witnessing Byrne’s most recent stroke of genius, a celebration tackling life’s greatest evils through the joys of song and dance.
The announcement of the Byrne/Lee collaboration, plus the addition of inimitable cinematographer Ellen Kuras, sent ripples through the industry. In this tire fire of a year, few could have imagined Lee & Kuras, previously frequent collaborators, joining forces to present another splashy, joyful brushstroke from the former Talking Heads bandleader. As many have noted, David Byrne’s American Utopia may just be exactly what viewers need as this year sputters to the finish line. Byrne’s show is an outburst of prideful joy; a comfort movie masked as a prestige concert picture. David Byrne’s American Utopia is the rousing crowd-pleaser of 2020, edited in quick cuts to sustain the grasp of the viewer Byrne holds so strongly. Starting out as an assistant editor on some late Harry Potter films before co-editing Roma and editing solo Lee’s own Da 5 Bloods, Adam Gough has seen enough of this industry’s mainstream and indie productions to achieve a satisfying balance between the two. His cutting is merciless – at many points, gratuitous – yet the formality of Lee’s direction never once flees. Gough edits the film to please a restless home audience, and demonstrates a force to be reckoned with in his editing. Not only that, but I barely noticed a moment of discontinuity, unsynchronized audio/picture, and other such hurdles the vast majority of concert films fail to overcome. That’s some serious talent.
However, something about this film troubles me. Could it be that Lee’s direction, though controlled and precise, is rather uninspired? Granted that he has some big shoes to fill – Demme’s, who receives a posthumous shout-out in the credits – but Lee’s coverage of the film feels rather…banal, shooting the stage, Byrne, and the musicians as though David Byrne’s American Utopia were a stand-up comedy special a la Jim Gaffigan. Lee has his moments, of course – one writer likened Lee’s overhead shots of the stage to the style of 30s musical pioneer Busby Berkeley – but, otherwise, this is a rather typical offering from the righteously singular Spike Lee; a disappointment. However, that’s not what is most troubling. Could it be that Byrne, though never not hustling and bustling, performs a bit more listlessly than usual? Now 68, the active David Byrne shows no sign(s) of slowing down and stepping away from the business – if anything, this show feels like something of a resurgence for him – but Byrne’s energy noticeably wanes somewhere in the middle. Yes, such are the woes of live theatre, but it must be said that many of the new renditions of past songs, both of his solo work and with Talking Heads, are considerably weaker than usual; and combined with Byrne’s heroic-but-lessening stage presence, this registers as a disappointment. Yet that’s still not what troubles me most.
Writing for Filmmaker Magazine, critic Vadim Rizov suggests that the film “feel[s] a little self-congratulatory.” Previous to this, he mentions the segment of Byrne urging the mostly middle-aged crowd to vote in local elections, going on to declare the segment – if not the whole film – as “basically the kind of exercise in self-congratulatory liberalism that pushes the buttons of easily-outraged Breitbart readers, provok[ing] rapturous applause from an almost universally white audience.” I couldn’t have put it any better: David Byrne’s American Utopia means so well, and is at times a deeply cathartic, reasonably enjoyable celebration of life and the mammoth pains we put on ourselves. It is unfortunate, then, that the film presents exactly the type of self-pleasing statement a comfort movie disguised as a prestige concert picture, the rousing crowd-pleaser of 2020 would place on a pedestal — along with itself. David Byrne is the most prophetic artist of the last forty years, but this show could have been performed by any other world-famous former bandleader gone on to solo success. I would’ve loved to see it live, witnessing the enchanting fireworks as was meant to be. Instead, I saw Lee’s blank, indistinctive capturing of an all-too-proud TEDTalk with pizzazz. Too bad.