VOD film review: David Byrne’s American Utopia
James R | On 17, Dec 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: David Byrne
Watch David Byrne’s American Utopia online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“Everybody’s coming to my house, and I’m never gonna be alone,” sings David Byrne on his American Utopia tour, and thanks to Spike Lee’s recording of his Broadway show, everyone actually can cram into the room, without worrying about ticket prices or social distancing.
Filmed at the Hudson Theatre in New York, the concert is at once entirely conventional and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Bryne, greying and wearing an understated grey suit, is joined on stage by 11 musicians, singers and dancers, and they echo his movements – his uniquely angular movements – with a precision that’s as bizarre as it is mesmerising. They’re a diverse bunch, and they throw themselves into the wacky display with a united enthusiasm and skill.
They’ve certainly got a back catalogue to be excited about: Talking Heads classics are lined up (albeit without Psycho Killer) to keep any fan nodding happily from minute to minute. Don’t Worry About the Government, Once in a Life, This Must Be the Place and more all make appearances, and they’re given a fresh lick of pizazz and style by Spike Lee’s camera. He zooms in on the performers and follows them out into the crowd when they leave the stage – and, in particularly intense moments, takes the camera on stage to put us in the thick of it.
One stunning sequence sees the stage descend into strobing lights and snapshots that turn the whole thing into an almost stop-motion sequence of polaroids – a moment only topped by the warm group hugs backstage after the performance, where David celebrates with his collaborators (before riding, amiably, off on his bicycle).
But while fans will be delighted by the David Byrnian entertainment on offer, the whole evening is given an added timely edge by one surprising performance: a cover of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmabout, which essentially chants the names of Black people who have been killed after confrontations with the authorities. It’s a poignant, powerful song, and Byrne prefaces it by recounting a conversation with Janelle, in which he asked if she would mind him covering it. No, she told him, the song is for everyone. That accessible, welcoming attitude underpins the whole of this entertaining, uplifting, humanist celebration – which finds room for science, philosophy, James Baldwin, Kurt Schwitters and compassion. It’s only fitting, then, that the London Film Festival premiered the film in October 2020 by streaming it for free.