Premise: Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.
How does David Byrne follow-up Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary that birthed an entire genre, even if it’s had 36 years to marinate? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of the elements that make Sense such a delight – the boundless joy and energy of everyone onstage, the production value, the musicality – are on display here, and it feels like Byrne hasn’t missed a step in the intervening years. And yet, it’s the moments between the music that sets American Utopia apart from its predecessor. Sense was simply a documentation of a band’s place in time, while Utopia has more on its mind, as Byrne tries to make sense of his place in the world. Sure, Talking Heads had larger ideas on display and made some grand statements with their lyrics, but Sense never aspired to be more than a concert documentary.
In one of the first interludes, Byrne pauses to wonder about a story he read recently regarding neural synapses of babies versus adults, leaving him to posit that babies are smarter than adults. While his rapport with the audience never wavers – though it’s clear that they’re all rapturously on his side from the beginning – it could be read from a few of his interactions that he’s simply trying to find someone to connect with, someone that sees the world in the same way as him. Utopia finds Byrne concerned with topically relevant social issues like the importance of voting and racial injustice, all without coming off as preachy. This is a product meant for mass consumption, not a niche audience.
Of course, Byrne’s vision is what makes Utopia such a delight from every artistic angle. The show originally evolved from Byrne’s album which he wrote with Brian Eno in 2018 and adapted for Broadway in 2019. And eventually, the show garnered the interest of Spike Lee, who set out to direct a filmed version. Though Lee has never directed a music documentary feature before, he ends up being the perfect collaborator for Byrne. For Sense, the Talking Heads teamed up with legendary director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) to bring their vision to life. Here, Byrne has found another legend in Lee to fill his shoes – or, in this instance, bare feet – and bring his own artistic sensibilities to the production. Lee’s camera glides around, framing the performers perfectly so the viewer always knows what to focus on, all without feeling obstructive to the live audience. Lee’s shot selection makes it clear that he has studied the material meticulously and knows what to expect at every turn. Lee has already made his mark on 2020 with an incredible entry in his career in Da Five Bloods, but it could be argued that this film is its equal, at least from a directing standpoint.
As for the show itself, Byrne surrounds himself with performers who simply appear to love the act of performing. In one of the final soliloquies, he emphasizes his desire to have every instrument be wireless, not only so that everyone can freely move about the stage, but so that the audience can focus on what really matters: the music and the musicians. Indeed, the stage is simply a blank space, enclosed by a beaded curtain that the performers emerge from and disappear through. And each member is clad in the same drab, gray suit, the same color of the background. That the band is made up of a myriad of nationalities and heritages speaks not only to Byrne’s mission of inclusivity, but that music is, yes, a universal language.
The music is a mix of Byrne’s work with Eno and some beloved Talking Heads songs like “Burning Down the House” and “This Must be the Place”. Though Utopia is very much its own entity, in some small, quiet ways, it can be seen almost as a spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense. It’s not essential to view the earlier film before this, but it certainly reminds you that Byrne can still remember his roots. During the most energetic high points, you almost become envious of the members of the live audience, that they were able to experience that kind of joyous energy in person. The closing number in particular, in which the entire ensemble weaves their way through the audience while singing acapella, is a testament to the exhilaration of live performance. The magic of Sense was in the bandmates’ spontaneous energy and their ability to make every aspect of making music look less like a job and more like fun. That spontaneity is slightly less prevalent here, giving way to more tightly-structured choreography, but that assuredly doesn’t make it any less fun to witness.Before watching Stop Making Sense for the first time in the early days of 2020, I had never even heard a single Talking Heads song, much less been familiar with David Byrne or his creativity. While I still am far from knowing Byrne’s full story, it’s clear he has a magnetic stage presence and performative energy, even at his current age of 68. Which is to say that, no, you don’t have to love the Talking Heads or have Byrne’s entire discography memorized to watch or enjoy this film. Concert documentaries can sometimes have the reputation of “background viewing”, as something to throw on without necessarily devoting your full attention to the screen. While it is possible to view American Utopia in the same way, Byrne’s presence – and Lee’s camerawork – will reward you by providing more than just a collection of incredible music. There may be other films from 2020 with bigger budgets or more recognizable stars or weightier subject matter, but – like any great album – I believe Utopia is easily the most replayable.
American Utopia is now streaming on HBOMax.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.