TIFF20: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is undoubtedly brilliant. Eccentric. Thoughtful. Electrifying. It would be incredible to crack that skull open and have a poke around inside. And amazingly, without quite comprehending what we’ve done to deserve it, we’ve somehow been allowed to just that, thanks to his 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia. And for those of us who didn’t catch it live, in what I can only assume is divine intervention, Byrne has collaborated with Mr. Spike Lee.

Yeah. This is a Spike Lee Joint.

Based on a recent tour and album of the same name, David Byrne mounts what I can only describe as a fantastic beast, a hybrid part performance, part performance art. It’s a concert, a reflection, a celebration. It starts off thoughtful, contemplative, an intellectual exercise that just happens to be sung. But then he’s joined on stage by a small group of dizzying dancers and intoxicating musicians that inject the stage with a punch of vibrancy and energy that I will take the time to name them all since Byrne did much the same: Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III. All dressed in the same uniform, an unremarkable grey suit, their bare feet pounding the stage, a visceral representation of their grounded exuberance.

Stripped down to just humans and instruments, Spike Lee gives us all the angles – the up highs and the down lows, his camera becoming part of the mesmerizing choreography, part of the show.

It often feels like Spike Lee films are prescient in some way; they always hit the exact right note for today despite having been made yesterday. Byrne manages to strike the same vein with American Utopia, urging us to reevaluate our connections before anyone had seen a global pandemic heading our way. And the way he nudges us toward reckoning with the company we keep, the views we fail to challenge, and the work we still need to do is brought to a head when he borrows from Janelle Monáe for a dynamic, blistering rendition of Hell You Talmbout which asks the audience to say their names – the names of people dead at the hands of racial injustice – which becomes a chant, a memorial, and a plea for change.

Byrne’s show, at times angry, or impassioned, is not a passive experience. Audience members are on their feet, responding to his energy, creating a living, breathing reflection of the moment that Spike Lee seamlessly absorbs and becomes. Fans of David Byrne will no doubt be pleased by the show, but the real testament to its power is that it remains accessible to even complete novices. American Utopia is no mere concert documentary; Spike Lee has managed to take something beautiful and alive and mount it, pinned with loving precision, practically still breathing, for all to admire.

7 thoughts on “TIFF20: David Byrne’s American Utopia

    1. Jay Post author

      It was very cool. Also cool how humble he is, because he also seems to consider it a collaboration with all the musicians on stage with him. He refers to them as his “band” and I just think that’s so nice considering his is the only name pulling in customers, but he shares the stage equally.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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