Review: David Byrne's energizing 'American Utopia' sticks it to the man
Courtesy of HBO
With the recent announcement that Broadway is shutting down until May 2021, the Spike Lee directed “American Utopia,” David Byrne’s energizing musical that ran for a limited 16 week engagement in 2019, couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. Filmed over the course of four performances amid the sold out run, “American Utopia” is a rousing protest film about the art of sticking it to the man. One that feels like a concert taking place in your living room and seeing audience members clap, cheer, stomp and holler gave me a serious case of FOMO which is another sobering reminder of what this wretched year has taken from us.
But the joyous “American Utopia” (or really, “David Byrne‘s American Utopia”) which is a culmination of two solid artists working in unison - Spike Lee and David Byrne - should be a welcome addition into everyone’s homes. Those still reeling from the buzz of “Hamilton” should find the soothing, upbeat and relaxing tunes of “American Utopia” all the more relatable. Mainly because the whole point of the musical is about exploring one’s role in their community, a role that David Byrne knows all too well. Lee - who already gave us an Oscar calibrated film “Da 5 Bloods” earlier this year - shot the film from countless angles, giving viewers at home the best seat in the house.
Byrne and Brian Eno wrote the album “American Utopia” and released it to rave reviews circa 2018. But it was the Broadway show of the same name that truly helped put it on everyone’s radar. With it’s residency at The Hudson in 2019, the musical didn’t just include songs from the new album but incorporated plenty of chart topping hits from Byrne‘s expansive “Talking Heads” career including “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” and “This Must Be the Place.” Essentially, “American Utopia” was a glorified concert, but constructed with a more intimate scenic design to allow those lucky enough to purchase tickets a one on one session with Byrne and his top notch band. It’s all on display in this film version which Lee decided to direct after seeing the show for himself and figured the social justice aspect would be good fodder for election season, although who knew it would hit such a nerve?
The film begins on an empty stage with the song “Here” which showcases Byrne examining connections by singing about different parts of the brain. In between the expertly choreographed sequences, the singer often takes sides to the audience, explaining how human connection is vital for community health. He’s doing this to the backdrop of visceral performance art, and even if the metaphors don’t land with the thud Lee and Byrne hope they do, the music should be enough to get casual viewers invested.
Byrne and Lee aren’t ones to assume that “American Utopia” can solve the world’s problems surrounding systemic racism, police brutality, or voter suppression, but the outrage and “sticking it to the man” attitude certainly resonates. One of the first images that appears on stage through the show is one of Colin Kapernick as the performers kneel on stage, but the most powerful sequence comes during a soothing, heartstopping, rendition of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” in which the film injects pictures of Black men and women who were murdered carelessly. If you feel helpless, that’s the point Byrne is trying to make. In a year plagued with such turmoil, friction, and social unrest - the fact “American Utopia” can seem both alive and woke at the same time should be celebrated.
The ensemble which joins Byrne on stage create the music in real time, and they illustrate their crazy talents not just with instruments but harmonies as well. You might have forgotten the intellect of the human spirit but watching “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” I was reminded of the intimate beauty that comes from making challenging forms of art and how, in the middle of a pandemic, we took those privileges for granted. Being on the road to nowhere has never been more intoxicating.
DAVID BYRNE’s AMERICAN UTOPIA premieres on HBO Saturday October 17th and streams on HBO MAX.