Makes Sense

Spike Lee directs David Byrne in the concert film ‘American Utopia’

If the definition of utopia is an impossibly perfect society, then this must be the place. Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia plays its white-man’s-overbite techno-grooves loud and proud, a giddy injection of goofball glee that doubles as an ’80s afterglow for disaffected Gen-Xers everywhere.

AMERICAN UTOPIA ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Running time: 105 min

“We’re a work in progress,” Byrne declares. “We’re not fixed.” Inspiring, sure, but still a bit of a platitude. The film espouses progressive values, dips into introspective insight, points toward future societal ideals, and nudges us all to be better people, then settles for settled-in vibes. It’s a majestic, multifaceted, multiethnic mirage.

It’s also, for a certain middle-aged target demo, absolutely irresistible. This nonstop musical revue delivers a heady brew of Talking Heads hits alongside Byrne’s more recent solo work, re-orchestrated for a dozen besuited and barefoot musicians toting body-strapped instruments. Imagine the world’s hippest marching band headlining CBGB and you get the gist.

American Utopia started out as a concert tour which then became a Broadway residency that begat this new movie. So is this Spike Lee’s American Utopia or David Byrne’s American Utopia? Sometimes the former, mostly the latter. It’s certainly not Jonathan Demme’s, although his shadow looms large enough for his name to appear in the end credits.

That late great director’s rightly revered Stop Making Sense still sets the gold standard for live music films. Demme’s formalistic cinematic flair mirrored Talking Head’s art-project-concert-tour impeccably, while never letting its cerebral paradigm suffocate the infectious boogie-down electricity oscillating between the band and the audience. There’s so much overlap in the two films’ respective playlists that they can’t escape comparisons. Best to think of American Utopia as a kind of geriatric coda to Stop Making Sense.

Forty years ago, these songs were fresh, alive, tingling with energy and raw oddness. You saw an alt rock band discovering the height of their powers and not even knowing it because they were so lost in their own beguiling beats. Now, all these years later, instead of watching a quartet that sparked and swayed, we see a Broadway-gilded ringmaster curating his legacy.

Imagine the world’s hippest marching band headlining CBGB and you get the gist.

American Utopia

“Burning Down the House” was once a jittery ode to the creative-destructive urge. Now it’s an ossified upbeat vehicle for radiating fun. Watch out: you might get what you’re after. Then again, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” suddenly feels haunting. A lyric like And you love me ’til my heart stops / Love me ’til I’m dead, once a cheeky youthful declaration, becomes more winningly weighted. Dude is old!

As with Demme’s 1984 sensation, this 2020 edition metes out its performers, adding layers of melody and percussion with every new song.  But this time, with a three-story metallic chain curtain as the only substantial set dressing, viewers are left with the stripped-down eye candy of silvery uniformed bodies in motion.

The conceit proves surprisingly durable over the two hours of calisthenic jubilation. Bobby Wooten III is the most blissed-out bassist on earth. Jaquelene Acevedo adds a beaming blonde bombshell twist to the percussion section. Kudos especially to Byrne’s pair of backup singer/dancers, Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, who shadow their elder and his left-right-left body-shuffle minimalism with frenetic spasms of tightly choreographed arm contortions, elbow jabbing and limbs akimbo.

Choreographed complexity abounds. Just listen to the arrangements: at one point, Byrne has the musicians play each instrument one by one, revealing deft instrumentation reimagined for the stage. The company has toured this act for two years, and it shows.

In Byrne’s incandescent must-read autobiography-as-instruction-manual How Music Works, he writes that the best performances create great music because of their environments. The sound must be organic and in tune to its surroundings, honed over time to respond to and build on how audiences react. American Utopia is this type of culmination, as well as its own exegetical self-analysis: finely honed stagecraft and virtuosity, an exhortation of musicology just as much as it is a jubilation. It’s wonk funk.

Hold up. How is this a Spike Lee Joint? The prolific, protean auteur has already proven his chops for capturing live theater, with his dynamite versions of Stew’s revelatory musical Passing Strange and Roger Guenveur Smith’s impassioned monologue ‘Rodney King’. Still, there’s a steak-and-jelly dissonance to pairing the rabble-rouser behind Do The Right Thing and the quirk king who begat True Stories. One always brings the sizzle, the other prefers sweet melodic provocation. Two great tastes, but are they really great together?

In this case, Lee works more as a conscientious technician, working in service of the geometric staging and framing the action in symmetrical set-ups. He gets the robotic Byrne aesthetic. The only time the Brooklynite and the RISD alum really sync up is during Janelle Monáe’s Black Lives Matter anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” where the frustrated rage of the “say their names” chorus invokes our country’s ongoing police brutality.

Here, Lee complements a litany of dead men and women with a catch-in-your-throat cascade of family members quietly holding poster-sized photos of their dear departed: Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Breonna Taylor. These are insert shots, clearly filmed after the musicians had left the stage. And they’ll stay with you long after the music has faded away.

David Byrne holds a brain in ‘American Utopia’.


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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