David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, 2020)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents David Byrne’s American Utopia.

Deeply reflective and exceptionally high-spirited, David Byrne’s theatrical concert American Utopia stormed Broadway with the ex-Talking Head’s mix of iconic music and quirky ideas. With a collection of eleven talented musicians, singers, and dancers supporting him and informed by the work of James Baldwin, Janelle Monáe, Hugo Ball, and Kurt Schwitters, the show plucked at the connections between us and aimed to start making sense of it all. With director Spike Lee commemorating the show for the screen, David Byrne’s American Utopia transforms the stage production into an immersive, dynamic cinema experience that radiates with astounding performances, inventive contemporary dance, and political urgency. A clarion call for protest, compassion, and shared responsibility and a new masterpiece among concert films, David Byrne’s American Utopia is the life-affirming rock-doc arriving at precisely the right time, ready to burn down the house.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • 4K digital master, approved by director Spike Lee and David Byrne, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Start Making Sense, a roundtable conversation with Lee, Byrne, musician Janelle Monáe, and critic Ashley Clark
  • One Fine Day, a new program of interviews with Lee, Byrne, and the film’s cast of performers
  • Slippery People, a conversation between choreographer Annie-B Parson and cinematographer Ellen Kuras
  • Remain in Light, an exploration of American Utopia stage design and its innovative lighting
  • Promotional discussions featuring Lee and Byrne
  • Meet the Band, introductory videos for the cast and crew
  • Additional performance of “Hell You Talmbout”
  • Trailer and teaser
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Robert Daniels

Thomas Schatz once noted that all film genres “involve the promise of utopia.” Richard Dyer went farther, stating that the central thrust of all entertainment is “utopianism,” one expressed not in practical models but in “the feelings it embodies.” Less thinking and more feeling was the mission statement of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan’s Demme’s essential concert film commemorating the Talking Heads’ 1984 tour, and in doing so the movie leaned hard into the genre tropes of the film musical. For its first half, Stop Making Sense assembled a band and put on a show, starting with front-man David Byrne, a boombox, and “Psycho Killer,” Byrne’s first successfully written song and his inspiration for starting a band. From there, curtains fell, band members were added (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and keyboarist Jerry Harrison, in order), and others joined the parade (including Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, and backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt). In its latter half, the conventions of the unintegrated musical gave way to those of the integrated musical. Stop Making Sense found musically activated spaces as Byrne danced with a floor lamp during “Naive Melody (This Must be the Place)” à la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, donned his infamously big and boxy suit for “Girlfriend is Better,” and sunk underwater for “Take Me to the River.” By its finale, the possibilities of Stop Making Sense’s musically-infused nirvana spilled out beyond its meticulously observed proscenium arch and flowed into a celebratory audience, the movie’s promise of utopia summarized succinctly by the image of a child dancing with a plush unicorn toy.

In the intervening 35 years, Stop Making Sense has become a standard-bearer for the concert film (MMC!’s favourite with all apologies to The Last Waltz) and so one has to admire Spike Lee and David Byrne for undertaking another concert film featuring the ex-Head so prominently. Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras document Byrne’s celebrated Broadway stage production American Utopia (borne from his 2018 album of the same name and the touring show it inspired) and the result feels like a spiritual sequel and a fitting bookend to Demme’s classic rock-doc. David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) doesn’t shy away from its predecessor, employing various call-backs to Stop Making Sense. The reappearance of popular Talking Heads tracks like “This Must be the Place (Niave Melody),” “Slippery People,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Burning Down the House” stand out most prominently, but this more recent concert film engages in a far more overt agenda than its predecessor. Whereas Stop Making Sense called out for us to think less and move more, American Utopia isn’t satisfied just with getting people out of their seats. Byrne and Lee’s film demands that we do more with our activity; it begs that we see and feel those moving next to us. More importantly, the film demands that we carry this musically-inspired engagement out into the rest of the world. Like Byrne’s optimistic news site Reasons to be Cheerful, American Utopia develops our curiosity, our mindfulness, and our expectation and encourages us to take it out into our daily lives.

American Utopia organizes its pieces fairly quickly, certainly more quickly than Demme and Talking Heads did in 1984. As in Stop Making Sense, American Utopia begins with Byrne alone, swapping a guitar and a boom-box for a desk, a brain, and a performance of “Here,” a neurological rumination on grey matter put to music. Stop Making Sense was meticulous in its stage design, limiting audience distractions by painting all stands and equipment black and barring the presence of water bottles, cups, towels, pick stands, and the like. American Utopia takes this further, offering an empty stage boxed in by three walls of chain link curtains. Byrne is promptly joined midway through “Here” by a pair of vocalists/dancers (Tendayi Kuumba of Urban Bush Women and the fabulously sparkling ginger dream, Chris Giarmo) and then by nine more surprisingly distinctive singers/musicians (a number specifically dictated by the show’s budget – said Byrne, “If I could afford another five musicians, I would have had them.”). They all wear matching grey suits (“It’s almost a blank slate.”) and all are free to move and dance thanks to wireless technology that keeps the performers and their instruments mobile and the stage clear of cables (“With Stop Making Sense, we brought everything onstage so people could see what it takes to put on a show, and with this, I’m taking everything away.”). Looking at the blue-grey box of the stage and the identical suits, it’s hard not to recall Byrne’s powder blue “big suit” in Stop Making Sense which encouraged an intuitive relationship with music by emphasizing the singer’s movements in its hanging fabric and minimizing the need for rational thought by making Byrne’s head look unusually small in comparison. American Utopia seems to almost exist within that boxy big suit, within that space of musical inspiration, and the identical suits feel cut from that same cloth, although they fit normally now as if to suggest that we must still move but our heads and minds are now equally needed.

Thirty-five years after Demme and Talking Heads made Stop Making Sense, it feels like a lot of things have stopped making sense. American Utopia is peppered with Byrne talking about various topics in the TED Talk-style of small anecdotes promising big ideas. On various occasions, he considers dadaist poetry, voter engagement, neural networks, climate change, and musical adaptation, each containing the promise of the show’s theme: making connections for the greater good. Byrne is not unaware that he is an unusual spokesperson for tolerance and justice in 2020. White-haired, affluent, and approaching 70, Byrne has had his own controversies with race and accusations of appropriation, and he’s been subject to some harsh judgments on his character (fellow-Talking Head Tina Weymouth once called Byrne “a man incapable of returning friendship”). He’s also, frankly, kind of a weird guy, something between David Lee’s “alien learning the rules of the planet” and “art-rock’s very own Mr. Rogers,” as described by David Ehrlich. Either way, each would prefer to see us all do a bit better. Still, the aging Mr. Byrne has something of the aw-shucks charisma of James Stewart in his wry grin and twinkling eyes, and he remains a marvel vocally, being able to swoop and swoon, yelp and project the same as he ever did.

The pairing of Spike Lee and David Byrne is another unusual connection, although its oddity is only superficial. Both men found their artistic voices in late-’70s New York (Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan respectively), both came to prominence on parallel tracks in the 1980s, both share a bona fide interest in African culture, and each have come to occupy the role of elder statesmen in their respective orbits despite remaining in their creative primes. Lee, for his part, signed on to direct the film after his second viewing of the show, immediately going backstage to Byrne’s dressing room to tell him he was on board and that it was already time to secure their funding. Lee also gives Byrne a pass on his recent racial controversies, remarking, “The reason why I love David is that he comes from righteousness.” The two together make a fitting duo for this film about knitting together the frayed edges of our social fabric. Byrne has called the stage show a story about transitioning from isolation to connection and the film reinstates the need for connection by the common suits, the unity of sound produced between these twelve artists, their convivial movements brilliantly choreographed by Annie-B Parson, and by their all being barefoot, directly connecting them to the ground and to our world. Byrne and his troupe explore and represent the idea of community within its conspicuously blank stage, bringing to mind rock cinema’s distinction between the tour documentary as a journey through space and the concert documentary as a journey through mind, one that is attuned to the physical and the other engaged in the metaphorical.

The work of Lee, Kuras, and editor Adam Gough is astonishing, creating an immersive experience that goes far beyond the position of the concert spectator. Kuras and Parson consulted extensively throughout the project and the film consequently reveals views impossible to see as a ticket-holder, yet somehow never captures the obstrusion of Kuras’ team of 11 camera-operators. Perspectives perfectly compliment the geometry of Parson’s careful choreography, finding views from above to capture hopscotching arrangements and from below to wonder at shadows cast long and high up the stage’s curtains. In the film’s most indelible passage, Lee and Byrne conspicuously break the confined space of the stage’s three-walled box and of the larger theatre with an artist-endorsed cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest anthem, “Hell You Talmbout.” The performance is preceded by an image of Colin Kaepernick that jarringly moves the event out of the closed world of the stage show and feels troublingly on-the-nose as an identifier of political action, however “Hell You Talmbout” is staggering with its repeated demand to “say his name” punctuated by inserted shots of murdered Black Americans, of their names spelled out across the screen, and of their loved ones proudly standing in solemn observance. In a sense, the showstopping sequence resembles the “Genius of Love” performance in Stop Making Sense by Tom Tom Club, a Talking Heads side project without Byrne. That song, free of Byrne, elevates that film’s other performers, allowing Byrne to return as less of a star around which the others circle and more like a high tide that raises all boats. As Erik Adams astutely compares, “Hell You Talmbout” ends like a trashcan crashing through a pizzeria window, bringing into focus the true stakes of Byrne’s musings and rallying his troupe into a 12-headed general enlisting the viewer into its cause.

Some may complain about a lack of subtlety in American Utopia with Byrne preaching to the choir, offering a civics lesson to a predominantly white audience of past Talking Heads fans able to afford the ticket price for a hit Broadway show. Such criticisms, while obvious, mistake a lack of irony for a lack of subtlety. American Utopia is an emphatically sincere film, wearing its concern and compassion earnestly on its sleeve throughout. It’s why steadfast Talking Heads tracks like “Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime,” and “(Nothing But) Flowers” find no space in American Utopia and why the show closes with the hopeful “One Fine Day” and the joyful “Road to Nowhere.” As in Stop Making Sense, American Utopia’s stage show eventually steps down into its audience but unlike in Demme’s film which went out of its way to hold back on revealing its spectators until its final celebratory number, the audience is always present in American Utopia. They are spoken to. Lights are shone on them. Byrne teases laughs from them and the film never misses an opportunity to show them standing up from their seats. Byrne, who once remarks in the film that “meeting people is hard,” eventually concludes that “looking at people … that’s the best,” and so maybe American Utopia takes its time to get down into the crowd to ensure that we’re ready to stop looking up and to now see each other as well. Maybe it’s the same for Byrne also, who wonders midway through the show at the inclusive rendition of his “Everybody’s Coming to My House” by The Vocal Jazz Ensemble of the Detroit School of Art. Byrne observes that their version is not about wondering, “When are they going to leave?” but is instead “about welcome, inviting everyone over.” Byrne likes their version better, then acquiesces to being himself, an anxious older man overwhelmed by the prospect of being overrun by overstaying guests. Yet, the film’s coda of Byrne and his fellow performers leaving the theatre and happily biking through the streets of New York is accompanied by “Everybody’s Coming to My House: Detroit.” It’s Byrne’s music, but no longer confined to the theatre and no longer in his voice. It is no longer just his song. American Utopia seeks to break us free of our complacency and inspire something within us, anything within us, that can be taken away and used for good, be it music or goodwill, empathy or integrity. Fitting then that Lee ends American Utopia as he did Do The Right Thing (1989), with a call to vote.

Given how truly dystopic 2020 has been, this year needed a film as life-affirming, as unabashedly hopeful, as thrillingly energizing as American Utopia. Over the last few years, the Criterion Collection has developed notable partnerships with streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu to release impressive editions of some of their best films, and its time to add HBO to that fold. Byrne and Lee have become friends of the Collection and so it’s easy to imagine that rights to a hard media release bearing a wacky “C” could already have been preserved. The American Utopia stage show is scheduled to return to the Hudson Theatre in September 2021 but the new year could use all the help it can get in the interim, so why not an edition of David Byrne’s American Utopia stacked with additional content? In fact, why not release it with a Criterion treatment of Demme’s brilliant Stop Making Sense? It has already made it’s appearance on the Criterion Channel and its current Blu-ray, while still solid, could always use an upgrade.

Credits: Our cover summary is adapted from the upcoming UK Blu-ray release of the film, however details on that disc’s special features have proven hard to find and so we’ve cribbed off of the YouTube channels for HBO and the Broadway production for content and have imagined some new material of our own. Ashley Clark recently joined the Criterion Collection as curatorial director and given his relationship with Spike Lee, he seemed a natural moderator for a discussion with Lee and Byrne. We also tapped Robert Daniels for a booklet essay given his glowing review of the film for The Playlist.

This post owes a massive debt to Kevin Sintumuang’s fun and extremely informative Esquire interview of David Byrne and Spike Lee. This proposal was also informed by Erik Adams’ review for The A.V. Club, Jocelyn Noveck for AP News, Stephanie Zacharek for Time, Glenn Whipp for the Los Angeles Times, Jordan Hoffman for Vanity Fair, Mike Ryan for UPROXX, Owen Gleiberman for Variety, Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com, and David Ehrlich for IndieWire, as well as Kory Grow’s interviews of Byrne for Rolling Stone.

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