American Utopia

David Byrne, dancers and musicians on stage

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.

David Byrne addresses a human brain
Byrne’s ‘Alas poor Yorick’ moment

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.

David Byrne’s American Utopia – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020


Josh Brolin in Oldboy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



29 June


iPhone launched, 2007

On this day in 2007, Apple launched the first version of the iPhone. Until then, mobile or cell phones had been phones first, with a range of other capabilities – camera, email, mp3 player, internet access – tagging along behind. Apple’s creative breakthrough was to design the iPhone as a very small computer which also had phone functionality. This might look like a “six and two threes” explanation but what the iPhone did, which no phone had done before, was deliver a more integrated service, so the phone became in effect a Swiss army knife of the digital era: a mobile office with added leisure features which meant you could leave the house and work out where you were going, who you were meeting, how to get there and what you needed to know, all of this while en route, listening to Lana Del Rey as you went. The phone was an instant success and continued Apple’s return from the dead which had been signalled by the iMac, was continued by the iPod/iTunes, and finally completed by the iPhone. In fact the iPhone has become the tail that wags the dog, the operating system of Apple’s computers now looking like, and functioning like, the OS on the phone. To call the iPhone a success is to severely under-estimate what it has done – not only putting the two world leaders, Nokia and Blackberry, onto the critical list (Nokia phones sold off to Microsoft in 2013, Blackberry worth $82.4bn in 2008, $3.4bn at end 2013), but also creating the benchmark by which all other phones are judged, as well as the template for rivals (eg Android) to copy. When I say “copy”, I obviously mean “aspire towards”.




Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

What a strangely negative reception Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original, manga-based thriller got. A classic case of reviewers assessing a film for what it’s not, rather than what it is, Lee’s film certainly is not as powerful as the original – not as gothically badass in any direction – but it’s still a very good, expertly delivered, well told and periodically thrilling story that’s well worth your groats, shekels or dollars. The story – if you don’t know it from the original – is the same: a total asshole (here played by Josh Brolin) is imprisoned in one small room for 20 years. He has no idea why. He’s in solitary. Is fed, watered, taken care of, has TV access, but otherwise it’s him, the four walls and that’s it. And then, suddenly, he’s free again. And being a badass kinda guy, he heads off on a revenge jag to find the guy who imprisoned him, not for one second pausing to ask a simple question – is this sudden release all part of some wider, dastardly plan aimed specifically at punishing me further?
It is, of course, and it’s this tease of a plot that gives the film its dramatic drive. Helping it along are all manner of powerful little nuggets. Like that classic “fight in a very small space” sequence from the original. Lee chooses to reference it rather than recreate it – he’s smart, and knows that the original has been re-purposed so many times since the film debuted in 2003 that its original impact just isn’t there any more. Talking of impact, the hammer fight – I’ll just say “yes!”, with an extra exclamation mark! Modern brutalist gothic is Lee’s intention, and the cast stays on message – Samuel L Jackson in a kilt (again) and looking like some mad medieval pope, Sharlto Copley over-enunciating very amusingly as the extremely bad man whom Brolin (raw, animal, intense) eventually comes across, Elizabeth Olsen as the wafty wavery love interest who’s not what she appears. And notice that silent Chinese woman acting as Copley’s concubine (anyone know her name?), a racial stereotype lifted straight out of a penny dreadful or shilling shocker – or early James Bond films.
And on the subject of pastiche, it is often overlooked – because Spike Lee is so well known for his message films – just how in control he is as a journeyman director. And he is definitely giving us touches of Bond in among the other thriller references. Hitchcock too in his beautifully staged set pieces. As for the frequent use of the iPhone, which repeatedly bemuses the technically prehistoric Brolin – Satnav? Yellow Pages? A camera? – though it’s clearly a product placement buy-in (Apple possibly responding to Google’s slightly backfiring free ad of a film The Internship) it does at least locate us in the here and now, and confirms Brolin as the film’s ignorant underdog hero. Something the film does need, because it’s never that clear. No, it’s not as pure as the original, but Lee’s Oldboy is still a tense and intense thriller.



Why Watch?


  • Who better than Josh Brolin to play a vengeful badass?
  • Copley’s excellent villain
  • The clothes (costumes: Ruth E Carter) really match the film’s mood
  • Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Oldboy – Watch it now at Amazon






Savion Glover and Tyheesha Collins in Bamboozled


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 February



The first minstrel show, 1843

On this day in 1843, the Virginia Minstrels led by Dan Emmett became the first full-length black minstrel show in the USA.

They’d tested and previewed the show at other venues but it was on 6 February that the show opened at the Bowery Amphitheater New York.

The show had a three-act structure – four guys sitting in a semi-circle, singing songs, telling jokes and just generally being entertaining; followed by a front-of-curtain variety segment; finishing off with a spoof/skit/satire piece.

Minstrelsy goes back as far as you care to look – to the medieval bards of Europe or the griots of West Africa at least – though the American version is complicated by the fact that it was white people performing in blackface who seem to have originated the first shows, before black people in blackface took over.

The first genuinely American form of theatrical entertainment, it was wildly popular both at home and abroad, with all classes of people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Theatre chains opened catering specifically to minstrel shows.

Slavery was always in there somewhere, overtly or covertly, especially as abolitionism and later Civil War were dividing the country. Minstrel shows are often criticised now as offering little more than unthinkingly buffoonish, non-threatening, compliant black stereotypes – Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammy etc – but the same criticisms were being made back then, along with another familiar complaint: that the songs, speech and entertainment on display lacked real authenticity.

However, for the performers concerned, some of whom did what they could to advance the cause of freedom and equality with the tools they had to hand, the minstrel shows meant a living wage, and it undoubtedly opened the door to mainstream showbiz for African Americans, as it also opened American entertainment, in a mostly pre-movie age, up to the world.




Bamboozled (2000, dir: Spike Lee)

Spike Lee charges in where nobody else dared go, in what is one of his best films, a bizarre comedy about black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (an excellent Damon Wayans) who, frustrated by the constant rejection of his ideas (they’re “too white”), decides not to quit but instead get himself sacked – the severance package beckons.

So he comes up with the most outrageous idea he can think of. It’s a “coon show”, his words, called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

It will star two homeless black guys he passes on the street every morning, now renamed Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, and it’ll be set in a watermelon patch in Old Alabamy.

But, in a twist borrowed from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Delacroix’s minstrel show is a hit and he now has to serve up extreme racist material as entertainment week in, week out.

Bamboozled isn’t the sort of film that floats every boat – it isn’t subtle, for a start, and its message has been diluted slightly by time. But it does make its point – that for all our holier-than-yesterday posturing, black people are still working the old minstrel stereotypes, appearing on TV and movies in comedies but rarely fronting serious dramas, and playing up to the negative image of the gangsta rap video, or so says Spike Lee in no uncertain terms.

Why it works is because it is so fearless and feels as if it’s been composed of the sort of outraged stories black performers share when they’re in a bitching mood. In fact it’s falling over itself with anger at times, and towards the end the whole thing does start to collapse into melodrama.

Up until then though it’s been a series of “can he say that?” remarks spun together to make the point that black people are so tied up in knots by political correctness, black consciousness, history, racism and the constant demands for positive representation that they’ve no idea how to do the right thing (to borrow a phrase).

They’re bamboozled, in fact, a word Lee has possibly borrowed from a Malcolm X speech (which also turned up in Lee’s own film of the man).



Why Watch?


  • A film that really takes no prisoners
  • Lee shoots it all on digital, giving it that authentic Sunset Beach TV look
  • The talented cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mos Def and Michael Rapaport
  • Pungent cameos from Al Sharpton, Mira Sorvino and Matthew Modine


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Bamboozled – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate