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David Byrne’s “American Utopia” is Artful Escape First, Social Commentary Second

Byrne satisfies an appetite for live performance, connecting through a virtual space with help from human shapes and Spike Lee.

Towards the beginning of American Utopia, David Byrne thanks the audience for leaving their homes and coming down to the show.

Wait, we were able to leave our homes once?

The last live performance I went to feels like forever ago. It was in early March, right before venues were forced to close their doors due to COVID-19.

That tingly feeling – when the air is electric , and the energy is palpable from both performers and audience – feels dusty now.

But American Utopia has brought all those emotions back to the forefront and managed to rejuvenate me right from the comfort of my own home.

David Byrne is a craftsman, simply put.

He’s walked the line between don’t-blink moments and bold, sweeping gestures in all of his work with wiry ease. But none have been as socially succinct or as visually stunning as American Utopia.

The concept initially started as a solo album and tour in 2018. A Broadway show followed the next year with other work from Byrne included (previous solo work, Talking Heads hits), and is what’s now captured on film.

The addition of choreography by Annie B. Parson, whose known Byrne since the 90s, has been of major significance. Byrne’s a natural mover, so it’s no surprise he nails every head turn and leg extension. But his backing band really draws the eyes.

Barefooted and outfitted in light grey suits, they move like gears of a music machine during their performance. No wires or extra gear is in sight: freedom.

Talking Heads Tai Chai anyone? Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This gives each song its own sense of urgency.

The film starts with Byrne sitting at a table, examining a fake brain and singing the song, “Here.” Band members file in one-by-one, to fill in the space with their presence and offer comfort.

Byrne sings about isolation and the perils this can put you in. “I Should Watch TV” shows this with Byrne bathed in blue light, hypnotized by people playing pretend.

The power of people enters the conversation.

Inhibitions run wild on songs like “Lazy” and “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” bordering on something of freeform jazz and arthouse madness. Bandmembers from all over the globe (Brazil, France, Canada) power stepping and creating dynamic shapes with their bodies.

Spike Lee is able to capture these movements by immersing himself in the performance. He’s seen the show around 20 times, according to dance captain Chris Giarmo, and it shows.

He finds intriguing places to put the camera. Behind the beaded stage curtains, going for an aerial view of the windmill formations of the band. Tilting the frame during choreography, shaking it with the flick of a thick bass chord.

Byrne and Lee came up in the 80s New York scene together, admiring each other’s work and even attending respective film premieres. They’re both nerdy art kids fascinated by the human condition and what humans can do with their voice.

Byrne talks about the importance of voting, rattling off disparaging statistics about voter turnout in local and national elections. In a respectful and artful way he also shines a light on the violence and injustice upon the African American community.

Byrne sings a song he first heard Janelle Monae sing at a Women’s March called “Hell You Talmbout.” Members of his band (black and white) demand that the names of those killed by police brutality are remembered: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland.

Say their names.

It’s a powerful human sentiment that shouldn’t be politicized as often as it is, especially when its said by a well-known performer. If people are surprised by what Byrne is saying now, they clearly weren’t listening closely enough to their cassette tapes back in the day.

But for as much social commentary as there is in American Utopia, that’s not quite what the film leaves you with.

The performance is more about love and joy. About not being afraid to embrace yourself and connect with others. And even though that’s harder to do as cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the U.S. and institutions threaten lives on our streets, I’m happy to take the “Road to Nowhere” with Byrne any day and search for solutions within ourselves.

Rating: 5/5

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