Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Director: Spike Lee

Stars: David Byrne, Tendayi Kuumba, Chris Giamo

In the second half of the 1983 ‘Stop Making Sense’ tour, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne would disappear off-stage briefly only to re-emerge in an over-sized suit. The famous ‘big suit’ and its associated moves were a mockery of a certain Wall Street mentality that seemed particularly prevalent at the time (and throughout the ’80s). The ‘big suit’ reconfigured the sensibilities of capitalism into something other; ridiculous and slinky. As Byrne danced in it, one might readily imagine the impulse to do so locked inside the seemingly rigid forms of those the suit lambasted. There’s an idea in there that ‘fun’ isn’t something serious people really have time for, but oh they’d be better for it.

Everyone feels better for dancing.

In his spectacular 2019 Broadway show ‘American Utopia’ – here caught on film by Spike Lee – Byrne and a cadre of musicians and dancers took to the stage in matching grey suits. Tieless, their dress has the look and feel of modern business wear… except none of them are wearing shoes. 

Not wearing shoes allows for a certain nimbleness for all involved, but you can dance with footwear. No, it feels as though the choice is more important than that. And I thought of the ‘big suit’ and how Byrne and his players being barefoot evokes a similar sensation. In their grey attire, against a teal backdrop like frozen rain, they once more conjure the feeling of ‘suits’ freed from their glass and concrete prisons. American Utopia is like an extended musical number in which the bankers and accountants burst out from behind their desks and allow their hearts and their feet brief but powerful dominance over their heads. There’s even a narrative through-line about ‘unlearning’ in here…

Byrne’s energy on stage has been captured stunningly on film before. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film, Stop Making Sense, is widely (and rightly) considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. Indeed, I wasn’t a Talking Heads fan until I saw Stop Making Sense. It changed me. And so few films do that. Thirty-six years later and Byrne is still an incredible presence on a stage, and American Utopia is designed around his versatility. Byrne is intrinsically involved in every dance presented in the show. He is flanked by two superb ringleaders (his Vice Presidents if you will), Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giamo, but everyone on stage is choreographed. All instruments are portable, everyone is specifically positioned. And, like an evolution of the jogging-fixation that permeated Stop Making Sense, many of the moves here look like they’ve been pulled from an aerobics workout, which feeds into Byrne’s particular obsession with societal norms.

Byrne’s lyrics have often fixated on the staples of Western civilisation. Work. Suburbia. The pursuit (and anxieties) of happiness. Many of these wonderful songs are presented here. His multicultural backing group aren’t just a compliment to the diverse range of influences in the music (reggae rhythms always seemed important to Talking Heads); they’re emblematic of the kind of, yes, American utopia that Byrne often envisages (see his own directorial effort True Stories). His left-leaning politics and ideals are kind of guileless, beautiful. Byrne has a vision of a better USA built from the same materials as the extant one, just tweaked here and there, excised of hatred. His is a strange coagulation of optimism and cynicism. What could be versus what is.

Present day politics make their way into the show, particularly in Byrne’s frequent segues between songs, but usually at a slight remove. He talks about voter turnout in 2016. He talks about the rise of fascism in the ’30s. And, in an extraordinary Janelle Monáe cover, Byrne and co. get fiery over Black lives lost. In any of these forays you can feel the underlying tension of Trump’s America; a state of being that won’t simply leave us in a few days when Biden takes the oath. There’s a greater, wider sense of ‘now’ to American Utopia, one that also connects to the ideals and concerns evident throughout Spike Lee’s filmography. He and Byrne make for a good match-up.

Just as Demme did with Stop Making Sense, Lee mostly keeps himself out of American Utopia. David Byrne’s name stands on the masthead of this film and that mentality travels through into the picture itself. This is Byrne’s vision through and through. He even talks to the audience about his thought processes devising it all. This untethered show, presented from all angles, feels like Byrne’s utopian ideal of the concert itself. It’s like a sci-fi version of a gig, one where nothing and no one is bound and where the viewer can experience it from just about anywhere. Above. Below. Within. Lee is his collaborator in bringing that idea to all of us. And, yeah, the Talking Heads hits are stronger songs than the ones lifted from Byrne’s American Utopia album… but here it’s about the whole. About a kind of unity.

“Unfortunately, I am what I am,” Byrne sardonically says at one point, to a ripple of audience laughter. We wouldn’t want him any other way.

 

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