David Byrne’s American Utopia show, essentially a greatest hits package plus plus, was getting towards the end of its run in 2019 when Spike Lee arrived to film it. Part of Byrne’s wider Reasons to Be Cheerful project aimed at spreading good vibes, it had become, like Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway shows in 2017, a must-see event by that point.
Both Byrne and Lee are New Yorkers and there’s a definite Big Apple sensibility to this show – smart, dry, liberal, culturally catholic.
Another way to see it is as Stop Making Sense Part II. That, if you remember, was Jonathan Demme’s great 1984 concert movie of Talking Heads in their pomp, and kicked off with a bare-bones stage, a beatbox and David Byrne in a grey suit hammering out Psycho Killer on acoustic guitar.
Byrne starts this show solo too, addressing a model of a human brain in Alas Poor Yorick-style, dressed in a grey suit and barefoot, before being joined (as in Demme’s movie) by his band, this time all also dressed in grey suits and barefoot.
By the third song, Don’t Worry About the Government, we’ve arrived in greatest hits territory and that, the odd song from the 2018 album American Utopia excepted, is where we stay, on a bare-bones stage with a roaming wirefree band of 11 musicians/dancers plus Byrne performing Byrne’s songs (plus one by Janelle Monáe) in a superficially loose but in fact tightly controlled (and choreographed) way.
Between songs Byrne provides linking chat, loose (but also obviously scripted) raps about life, the universe and Byrne’s part in it all. Byrne never uses the word “autistic” but since a recurring theme is the difficulty of the individual connecting with the group – and given that Byrne admits to being on “the spectrum” – the personal movitation is obvious. Almost successfully keeping his robotic persona in a box somewhere backstage, he even smiles and cracks the odd joke.
What’s often forgotten about Jonathan Demme, given the huge sucess of films like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, is that his grounding lay in documentary-making and music videos. Spike Lee looks at first glance like a different creature altogether, but as well as what we might call the “auteur” Spike of Do the Right Thing or Da 5 Bloods there is also the gun-for-hire Spike who can turn out superbly crafted genre movies like The Inside Man or the Old Boy remake.
That’s the guy we get here, and he applies himself to the challenge of making cinematic what is really an intensely theatrical experience. As Byrne himself points out in one of his interlinking chats, the thinking behind the bare stage is that what people really most want to look at is other people, so just give them that – no back projections or drum kits necessary. Another way of seeing it is as a Byrne returning to a style that suits him – there’s always been a bit of the charismatic preacher in his stage persona.
In an audience, with 12 people to look at on stage, you are the director. You choose who to focus on and for how long. Your attention might wander from Byrne over to a cute guitarist, or that amazing dancer, or that funny looking guy over there.
Lee cannot recreate that experience but provides some compensation with a lot of cameras. To standard audience-pov shots, some static, some zooming on wires, he adds cameras in unusual positions – one down low at the back of the stage, another overhead to deliver Busby Berkeley moments.
Along with unobtrusive editing by Adam Gough, the whole things adds up to a package that’s almost immersive, especially if you’ve got the sound up.
David Byrne was 68 when this was made and if he’s not quite as sweatily psychotic as he used to be – the mellowness of age – he’s still limber enough to make you wonder what sort of health regime he’s on. He’s in great voice too. Perhaps most unusual of all is the fact that he seems to be enjoying himself even more than the audience of obvious fans, who are on their feet from about the second song, aware that they’re lucky to be in this room on this night.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020