review: David Byrne & Spike Lee soar and inspire with ‘American Utopia’ on HBO
On a beautiful September evening in 2018, I had the immense privilege of being at the Forest Hills Stadium stop of David Byrne’s American Utopia tour. It was a significant night as it had been 35 years since Byrne, along with his Talking Heads bandmates, had performed two shows there as part of the legendary Stop Making Sense tour. No less thrilling, the American Utopia tour consisted of Byrne flanked by 11 band members comprising nine multi-instrumentalists and two performers. Untethered and free to roam anywhere on the stage, it was part marching band, part color guard and downright funky. At the end of the evening, as the last sounds rang out and the bows were taken, it was clear to that audience of 14,000 that they had witnessed something special.
Cut to 2019 and the show has moved indoors to the rarified lights of Broadway’s Hudson Theater. In these smaller confines, rejiggered and in parts resequenced, it took on a whole new life. While the phenomenal choreography and lighting were for the most part unchanged, the intimacy of the theater more immediately and intensely highlighted the show's themes of human connection, human evolvement and social justice. Spike Lee, having a hell of a year already with the powerful Da 5 Bloods, was brought in to film the proceedings which premieres on HBO on Saturday, October 17. What unfolds is one of the most glorious, vibrant concert films in quite some time.
The show begins with Byrne sitting at a desk alone on a bare, steel-gray lit stage holding a model of a brain in one hand and singing "Here," the last song from the American Utopia album. Lyrically about the brain and emotions that control it, it has Byrne roaming the stage, pointing to various parts of the model. As the song unfolds into the next, a clever pairing of "I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong" from 1989’s Rei Momo into the Heads' debut album classic "Don’t Worry About the Government," band members slowly start to creep out from the shadows onto the stage, By the fourth song, the much-loved Speaking in Tongues classic, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," the entire audience is up on their feet. The next hour and a half is a celebration of humanity, as well as a call to better ourselves and better our connections and interactions with each other.
Highlights are in abundance. Byrne mentions that it was Brian Eno who suggested using the lyrics of Dada poet Hugo Ball for a song while strapping on his guitar to play the song in question -- the slinky African polyrhythmic funk of "I Zimbra" from Fear of Music. In the middle of the American Utopia album track "I Should Watch TV," as the lyrics refer to seeing a sports reporter, an image of Colin Kaepernick is projected, bringing the band to one knee and fists raised, as David looks up, poignantly singing “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” That was one of a number of added pieces when the show moved to Broadway. There's also "Toe Jam," a deep cut from Fatboy Slim’s Brighton Port Authority album which Byrne sang on, which strips down the breakbeats to reveal the conjunto waltz that lurked beneath; the band, bathed in red light, stand single file at the lip of the stage with members taking turns dancing. Another visual highlight is "Blind," with its spotlight at the foot of the stage projecting giant shadows off the band behind them. In a jaw dropping moment of joyous abandon, during the frenzy of "Burning Down the House," there is a cut to a camera attached to one of the balconies, where you can see and just about feel the theater shaking.
Spike’s direction -- which feels more like collaboration -- is in a word, spectacular. Cameras are situated everywhere, yet they never intrude on the proceedings and astoundingly his choices are perfect. There are moments we are on stage with the band, behind them, above them and, at times, in the crowd dancing and singing with the audience. It becomes a completely immersive and different experience than if you were at one of the concerts or even if you saw the show at the Hudson. Shot by the amazing cinematographer Ellen Kuras, American Utopia on Broadway is a feast for the eyes.
The film's most emotional moment, though, is also where we see the true power of what Lee brought to it. Back in its concert incarnation, American Utopia closed with Byrne and band taking on Janelle Monae’s protest anthem "Hell You Talmbout." While not the closer on Broadway, it is no less powerful and Spike ratchets things up a notch. During the crescendo, as they shout out the names of minority victims of police brutality and the refrain of “say his/her name," Lee cuts to large portraits of each, going so far as to having the mothers of Sean Bell, Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo’s holding their children's respective photos. Once the song ends, up comes photos of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery who were killed months after the show was filmed, and are a reminder that the struggle for justice is far from over. Added to the show at the end is a gorgeous acapella run-through of "One Fine Day," from 2009’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, followed by a march through the crowd to "Road to Nowhere." In a show that begs people to connect to each other, it's a fitting cathartic moment where band and audience are one.
Kudos to David Byrne and Spike Lee and collaborators for taking what was already a monumental performance and bringing it to new heights. American Utopia was set to return to Broadway this fall for a limited run until COVID had other plans. They've just announced new dates, happening September 18–January 17, 2021 at the Hudson Theater. Tickets are on sale now.
In the meantime, fire up those giant TVs, crank the soundbar or stereo (the sound of the show is crisp and full) and let yourself be transformed by this majestic film. You can watch the trailer below.