In 2018, legendary rock star David Byrne, singer and songwriter for beloved band The Talking Heads, released his new album, 'American Utopia'. To coincide with the release, he launched a high-concept world tour combining songs from the album with catalogue songs and covers. The following year, an altered version of the show, slightly refitted to emulate the structure of a musical, opened on Broadway. Determined to preserve the production as best he could, Byrne reached out to legendary filmmaker Spike Lee to see if he would be interested in directing the filmed version.
The result is 'David Byrne's American Utopia', one of the most ecstatic, joyous and thrilling films of the year, all the more extraordinary since the work of art at its centre was not created for this medium. Part of it might be timing - in the midsts of the catastrophe that is the year 2020, especially in America, Byrne's stirring and inspiring vision of a better America hits with particular power. Even so, the sheer kinetic exhilaration of this films is so impossible to deny that it would probably hit no matter when it appeared.
'American Utopia' is not a musical driven by narrative, but by an idea. At one point in the show, David Byrne (who speaks directly to the audience between the songs) quotes the writer James Baldwin: "I still believe we can do with this country something that has not been done before." This is the unifying principle to 'American Utopia', one that makes it more than a simple concert film. It taps into what is at the heart of Byrne's music, the conundrums, contradictions and idiosyncrasies of what America is. The fusion of his past work with contemporary songs gives us an emotional vision of where the country has come from, where it could go if we worked together, and where it might if we don't. There's a sadness, an anger, and a hopefulness to the production, delivered with astounding directness. There are no elaborate sets or costume changes, nothing excessive or unnecessary, and yet the staging is absolutely spectacular. As Byrne also points out, what human beings respond to most is one another, so the spectacle comes with the ecstasy of seeing his international band in action, percussive and immediate and having the time of their lives. The love pouring from the stage is infectious - even through a screen - and you feel your heart racing as these incredible artists execute Byrne's endless string of pop masterpieces with ferocious energy and infectious new orchestrations, combined with simple and astounding choreography.
The brilliance of the production though doesn't mean that Spike Lee simply points his cameras and presses record. In order for any film of a live performance to work, the team behind the camera have to be in sync with the artistic integrity of the performance and find a language of their own to preserve, emulate and elevate it. The primary example of this is also the ghost that hangs over the film of 'American Utopia' - Johnathan Demme's 1984 concert film 'Stop Making Sense', itself capturing The Talking Heads at the height of their career. That film is rightly regarded as the greatest concert film ever made, and that is due as much to Demme as it is to The Talking Heads. 'American Utopia' will inevitably be discussed in relation to 'Stop Making Sense' - and rightly so, but the greatest similarity between the two is how both Demme and Lee approach it with their own artistic sensibilities and energies, creating something magical and distinct. Lee's capturing of 'America Utopia' is like a bolt of lightning, the camera racing and spinning around the performers in step with their own energies. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras takes the camera into wild and unexpected places, giving us a perspective on 'American Utopia' no one in the Hudson Theatre would have seen, from behind and above and sweeping around. The camera is us, and we're given the best seats for this artistic coup, running around the stage so we don't miss a single giddy moment, and as the camera zooms through the theatre, crafted with magnificent precision by Adam Gough's editing, you feel your racing heart rising into your throat at the thrill of it.
One of the most ecstatic, joyous and thrilling films of the year, all the more extraordinary since the work of art at its centre was not created for this medium.
What makes 'American Utopia' such an incredible film - better than most we have seen this year - is the fact that both Lee and Byrne know exactly what they want to say. This could have just been a collection of amazing songs, but there's a need, a drive, a plea running underneath them. Byrne is an incredible empathetic artist, and Lee is a filmmaker of great passion and fury; those combined textures create a powerful electricity. It all comes to a head with Byrne's cover of Janelle Monáe's protest song 'Hell You Talmbout', which lists the names of many African Americans whose lives have been taken by racism, police brutality and white supremacy. The choreography and spectacle are stripped away, and Byrne and his band, standing along the lip of the stage, take turns in evoking the names of those lost. Lee then steps in and intercuts shots of people standing on the empty stage, many of them family members, holding large photographs of the lost as their names are chanted. The nostalgia of the past and the hope for the future collide into the reality of this American utopia now, and it's a moment that could only have been so powerful with this film with the communion between Byrne and Lee. It's an astounding, breathtaking moment in a film overflowing with them.
If 'Stop Making Sense' is a film of awe, 'David Byrne's American Utopia' is a film of ecstasy - the ecstasy of being alive, of creating, of connecting, of hoping, of healing, of uniting. That ecstasy is in every breathless moment of what we're seeing on stage, and every bombastic moment of the filmmaking itself. The only way this could possibly be better is if you were sitting in the Hudson Theatre yourself - and even then, you might lose the singular magic of this film. Great art speaks directly to the human soul, tells us that we are seen and that we are all in this together. 'David Byrne's American Utopia' is a celebration of everything that makes us human, and the dream that is what America could be. See it in a cinema, and pray they turn up the sound as loud as they can. 'David Byrne's American Utopia' is one of the best films of the year, and one of the greatest concert films ever made.