David Byrne’s American Utopia

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

American Utopia
"Lee is inventive in his shooting - particularly in his use of an aerial camera above the stage and another that lurks at the back at barefoot level, both capturing elements of the performance that an audience on the night would not be able to see."

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has always had a slight air of detachment that has worked for him down the decades. Emerging from the punk scene but never quite of it, because he never danced to a particular rock tune, his unusual performance style has aged well with him and is fully in evidence in this stripped back but effective Broadway show, filmed with the skill you would expect, by Spike Lee.

Based around his recent album of the same name, Byrne also smartly remembers his long-term fans with the inclusion of hits like Road To Nowhere and Burning Down The House, alongside some of his notable collaborations, including Lazy, which he co-wrote with X-Press 2. There's a beautifully balletic quality to the choreography from Annie-B Parson - providing continuity with Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which she also choreographed - which uses strong lighting cues and geometric shapes, to draw the eye to the performers, who are all besuited and barefooted.

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The stage is simply hung with a curtain of steel chains, allowing the focus to be on the performers and the music, as Byrne is gradually joined onstage by 11 musicians, combining movement and music to impressive effect with a constant sense of kineticism. Byrne doesn't speak an enormous amount, after all, he is paid to sing, but he gently pushes a message of connection with others alongside the importance of voting - with the show running until February 2020, these ideas seem, if anything, even more poignant now in a world of Covid social distancing.

Lee is inventive in his shooting, without being flashy - particularly in his use of an aerial camera above the stage and another that lurks at the back of the stage at barefoot level, both capturing elements of the performance that an audience on the night would not be able to see, so bringing an extra level to the film as a whole - this isn't just a straightforward recording but an expansion of it, with Lee adding an extra dimension of appreciation for the choreography and performing talent. Lee's also not scared to focus in Byrne to capture his emotions as he performs, rather than feeling the need to constantly show the bigger picture.

The most powerful moment, no doubt, comes with Byrne's cover of Janelle Monáe's protest song Hell You Talmabout, which highlights African-Americans who have died at the hands of the police and as a result of racist violence and which features family members holding photos of their loved ones. In a reminder that these sorts of incidents are, unfortunately, something that still needs urgently addressing, more recent names including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, are also featured.

There's an urgency and a hopefulness to the message here and, one thing's for sure, if you've spent most of 2020 in leisurewear, this film is likely to make you want to rush out and buy a suit.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2020
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David Byrne’s American Utopia packshot
A film of Byrne's acclaimed Broadway show.

Director: Spike Lee

Writer: David Byrne

Starring: David Byrne, David Byrne

Year: 2020

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: US


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