Film review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

American Utopia David Byrne directed by Spike Lee

American Utopia David Byrne directed by Spike Lee - Credit: Archant

In between comments on racism and tolerance that see America as a work in progress, is the tightly choreographed vivid exuberant performance of Byrne’s songs old and new

American Utopia David Byrne directed by Spike Lee

American Utopia David Byrne directed by Spike Lee - Credit: Archant

Former Talking Head David Byrne has given two great gifts to cinema. In the 90s he directed the indie gem, True Stories, which was unique and charming and a film only he could make.

It was a true one-off and after it Byrne never made a film again. I guess that was all he had to say about that. And before that in the mid-80s, there was Stop Making Sense, directed by the late Jonathan Demme, which skilfully re-invented the concert movie.

American Utopia is doing something very similar, it’s re-re-inventing the concert movie and that’s a disappointment, at least initially. Because it’s on Broadway, I was expecting some kind of show, possibly with a narrative or at least some kind of avant-garde production.

But, no, this is not that different from what Bruce Springsteen was doing with his Broadway show that was playing just up the road. It’s less autobiographical but there is a theme to it, the idea of America as a work in progress and, at points, Byrne delivers some surprisingly simplistic homilies about racism, tolerance and the importance of voting.


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So, the crux of the film is the songs and the performance of them. The setlist is taken up with tracks from his 2018 album of the same name, plus all your Talking Heads favourites. Yes, he does Road to Nowhere and Once In A Lifetime, though the new stuff that you may well be unfamiliar with, is impressive: it isn’t filler while you wait for the classics.

The staging is a bold piece of decluttering. The boards have been stripped of all cables and equipment. Byrne and his eleven person band perform barefoot in matching grey suits and everybody plays instruments that they can carry. There’s a lot of percussion going on. The dress code is uniform but the personnel are a wide mix; they are like a cosmopolitan and completely inclusive marching band. The result is a vivid, exuberant performance that is so tightly choreographed I doubt there’s a single moment of spontaneity in the whole evening. It celebrates diversity, freedom and democracy, but all on Byrne’s terms.

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4/5 stars.

Directed by Spike Lee. Starring David Byrne, Jacqueline Acevedo, Chris Giarmo, Daniel Freedman, Tendayi Kuumba and Angie Swan. Available of Digital Download on 14th December and DVD January 11th. Running time: 105 mins

Go to www.halfmanhalfcritic.com for reviews of Criterion Collection home release of Malick’s The New World; Powerhouse Films’ release of Altman’s Buffalo Bill and The Indians and Arrow Video’s Crash.

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