BFI London Film Festival: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne’s American Utopia
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Directed by Spike Lee
Featuring David Byrne, Jaqueline Acevedo and Gustavo di Dalva

by Lewis Church

This concert film offers a front row seat to Byrne’s 2019 Broadway performance American Utopia (based off the album of the same name), with the footage directed by Spike Lee and featuring a rapturous array of dancers, an enthusiastic audience and a central performer clearly relishing the possibilities of a huge and empty stage. Songs are built up piece by piece, movement is constant, and the sense of immediacy is powerfully enthralling.

There are also some insightful monologues from Byrne between the singing and dancing, a few candid anecdotes that might be familiar to you if you’re a Talking Heads fan or have read any of Byrne’s books (like The Bicycle Diaries). He also makes some observations on the importance of voting and political engagement that feel particularly urgent in the current moment of global turmoil. It’s probably worth acknowledging that your ability to ferret out all of the Easter eggs embedded in the script will no doubt rest on your investment in Byrne lore, but there is a lot here for even a casual fan of his music. He does play the hits, and they’re accompanied by an exceptionally capable ensemble who dance through them alongside him with a vibrant energy.

There is an elephant in the room though. All concert films of Byrne’s music (or perhaps even just all concert films) live in the shadow of Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme’s utterly exceptional and creative document of Talking Heads in their prime. American Utopia never reaches its heights, and particularly during the performance of some of the band’s greatest songs (especially ‘This Might Be the Place’) I found myself wishing I was watching Stop Making Sense instead. Byrne even threads the word ‘sense’ throughout much of his dialogue, in what seems to be a conscious echo of the previous film.

But whilst American Utopia never supersedes Stop Making Sense, there are a few elements of what made that earlier film so successful – close attention to songs that reveal new dimensions as a result, or complimentary movements that make explicit connections that you might have missed from the records alone. A section where Byrne discusses Dada poetry and bursts into a brief section of Kurt Schwitterz’ poem Ursonate is startling and fantastic, for example, as is his cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, which is accompanied by the image of those killed by police that the song names.

Ultimately, I found that despite American Utopia’s near universal acclaim, it was actually less creative than I was expecting as both a film and a document of live performance. Byrne has set an incredibly high bar for himself in the realm of visual accompaniment to his music, and whilst this is good, it never quite manages to surpass the great work that he’s been part of before. But if you’re already a fan, then sit back and enjoy.


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