When best-ever music films are discussed, Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense always seems to come out top, with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz a close rival. David Byrne’s new concert film American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, might just steal that crown. It’s an exhilarating, joyful experience with the most inventive staging I think I’ve ever seen at a live gig.
In 2018 Byrne toured his ‘American Utopia’ album and the following year adapted the show for a residency at New York’s Hudson Theatre, filmed for this movie. We get a mix of new songs and Talking Heads classics.
A disclaimer: I am a David Byrne fan and I’ve seen him perform live a few times, so this is not an unbiased review. I was lucky to catch this tour twice – once at the New Orleans Jazzfest in its abbreviated outdoor stage incarnation and a couple of months later the full show, right up front at the Hammersmith Apollo, London. It might be that Covid 19 has made me feel particularly gig- and theatre-deprived, but this film took me back to these performances and the exuberance of live concerts.
Byrne set out with a large ensemble band, but uniquely each of the musicians was completely untethered. Everything is wireless, instruments strapped to the musicians, and the movements are expertly choreographed by Annie-B Parson. As Byrne explains to the audience, people most like to look at other people, so why not try to remove everything else from the stage. And this gives Byrne the opportunity to create a true spectacle of music and movement.
This feels like a culmination of a concept Byrne’s been developing for some time. His 2009 live shows began to experiment with contemporary dance. His band included three dancers and Byrne and his backing vocalists were blended into the choreography although the other musicians were mostly fixed to their positions (example in this song). In 2012 he toured a joint show with St Vincent accompanied by a kind of marching brass band (it’s much better than it sounds! – see this NPR footage of some highlights). Although the mic stands, drum kit and keyboards remained in fixed positions, the band members were otherwise free to move as they played.
This time he’s achieved his ambition; the stage is entirely empty, a stripped-bare cuboid surrounded back and sides by a heavy chain-link curtain. The only thing to watch is the musicians filling the stage, all clad in identical grey suits and all bare footed.
The stagecraft is incredibly inventive, tailored for each song. in ‘Slippery People’ the band glides across the stage in intersecting groups, ‘Blind’ (from Talking Heads final album ‘Naked’) feels like the band are caught in a sea-storm, in ‘One Fine Day’ they are clustered like a gospel choir, and of course in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ Byrne staggers around jerkily just as he did in the original music video. Most concert films can be a little dull visually, no matter how good the music is; by contrast this is constantly fascinating to watch.
The spectacle and movement are so captivating that it’s easy to forget that this tight and energetic music is being performed entirely live. Byrne proves this to any doubters, demonstrating there are no backing tracks by having the band layer the introduction to ‘Born Under Punches’. And the music is really good: these musicians have been touring this incredibly intricate show for a year so the choreography seems entirely second nature and certainly isn’t a distraction; the playing has a vibrant energy and the band is tight – there’s a real spark and they look like they’re having fun, as do we watching them.
The concert – music, staging, lighting, set design – was fully developed by Byrne and his team long before Spike Lee got involved, so it seems his direction is mostly on camera positions and editing. But these decisions only further enhance the experience. There are no cutaway interviews between songs that can all often break the flow, this is one continuous concert and Lee makes us feel we are fully involved in the audience or even on stage. Some cameras are placed in impossible vantage points – the overhead shots show a beautiful symmetry that we barely appreciate from the front, and other cameras glide on stage with the musicians, spinning and darting with the music. It’s fluidly edited.
Unlike in Stop Making Sense where the audience is kept absent until the end, we see crowd shots throughout. Byrne regularly addresses the audience between songs; as he observes, with a bare stage the show is really all about the musicians and the audience. Even so, Lee makes us increasingly aware of the audience’s perspective as we move to the last few songs, with the silhouetted dancing crowd just forward of the stage, until the musicians and audience eventually blend.
The identikit costumes on stage only seem to highlight how diverse a bunch of musicians this is. As Byrne notes they come from all over the world and he himself is an immigrant to New York (he was born in Dumbarton, Scotland). Their individual personalities come across strongly, reinforced by the democratic choreography allowing each of them to express themselves – I wonder if the movements were devised collaboratively in workshops.
And this is fitting – diversity, inclusion and social justice are recurring themes in the songs and particularly the monologues of this ‘American Utopia’ about our need and potential to change for the better. Perhaps most powerfully in the only cover version, a percussive rendition of Janelle Monáe’s protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ commemorating black Americans who have died as a result of police violence (Lee shows us portraits as we are urged to ‘Say their name’).
But overall American Utopia is celebratory and joyful. The music and choreography are contagious – it made me want to get up and dance. The innovative staging is really unique – there’s nothing quite like this – and Lee has captured this perfectly. David Byrne’s heyday was his years with Talking Heads, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks up a few converts with this brilliant film.
Songs: Here / I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong / Don’t Worry About the Government / Lazy / This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) / I Zimbra / Slippery People / I Should Watch TV / Everybody’s Coming to My House / Once in a Lifetime / Glass, Concrete & Stone / Toe Jam / Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) / I Dance Like This / Bullet / Every Day is a Miracle / Blind / Burning Down The House / Hell You Talmbout / One Fine Day / Road to Nowhere