Spike Lee directs David Byrne in the joyous concert doc American Utopia: review
Music has always been David Byrne's medium, though it's hardly managed to contain him; there's little the rock star, raconteur, playwright, erstwhile actor, and lifelong bicycle evangelist hasn't dipped into over the course of a nearly half-century career.
Including, of course, documentary — most memorably in Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, the now-legendary 1984 concert film that captured Byrne's inimitable misfit-toy charisma at the peak of its powers. At 68, the former frontman of seminal art-pop pioneers Talking Heads may no longer be that urgent young man in the oversize suit, but he wears the role of still-vital statesman very well, as evidenced by his vibrant 2018 album American Utopia.
Now the lauded tour and limited Broadway run that followed the record has become, unexpectedly, a Spike Lee joint — another Oscar-winning filmmaker who, like the late Demme, understands that a David Byrne show is inherently as much theater as it is song. (And in Utopia's case, a full-fledged dance performance too, choreographed by the celebrated postmodern choreographer Annie-B Parson.)
Eleven other performers, nearly all of them creative multitaskers in their own right, join Byrne on a stage whose monochrome minimalism is somehow spare without being chilly. Clad like him in dove-gray suits that seem to nod to Sense, they look a little like administrators at a New Age institute: barefoot and beatific, yet somehow still business casual. They move, though, with an artist's unfettered joy — a happy cluster orbiting the singer as he tramps through his catalog, showering the audience with wry, lightly scripted tidbits of philosophy and introspection between songs.
About those: It helps to be familiar with the tracks on Utopia, though it doesn't feel crucial; there's an essential Byrne-iosity to them all that makes the decades-spanning set list feel relatively seamless. But Heads heads who came to hear the hits won't be misled: "Once in a Lifetime," "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),""Burning Down the House," and "Don't Worry About the Government" are all given showcase moments — along with deeper cuts and covers, too, including a reverent rendition of Janelle Monae’s 2013 protest anthem "Hell You Talmbout."
Lee's hand in all this seems to be a light one; aside from his clean, low-key camerawork, the show appears essentially as it did in the live performance. (Though a telling addition does come during an impassioned segment on social justice and Black lives, when newer faces are added to the images of persecution projected on stage.) Mostly he just lets the night unfurl itself, with Byrne as ringmaster, host, and resident sage — neatly soft-shoeing through the tuneful detritus of a wild, wild life. B+
American Utopia premiered Sept. 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be released Oct. 17 on HBO.
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