Spike Lee filmed David Byrne’s American Utopia on the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theater earlier this year; it is arriving on HBO on October 17, in a completely different era. Taking evident advantage of the publicity surrounding the HBO film, the producers have just announced the rescheduling of a four-month return engagement of the show on Broadway starting on Sept. 17, 2021. Tickets are already on sale, which at this point feels…optimistic. In the meantime, what we have is a film of an energetic live concert during a period when its main theme — a celebration of the need and the pleasures of connecting – feels both resonant and wistful.
Byrne, the 68-year-old former lead singer and guitarist for the Talking Heads band, expresses that need for connection from the very first of his 20 songs in the show, “Here,” when he sits at a table in a stark light by himself (viewed first from high above) in an otherwise empty stage, and holds up an oversized plastic model of a human brain. He points to different spots on the brain and sings in his deadpan voice about their various functions – “Here is a region of abundant details/Here is a region that is seldom used” …until he gets to: “Here is a connection with the opposite side.” And then he’s joined on stage by Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, the first two of the 11-member barefoot ensemble of musicians, dancers and singers – all dressed, as he is, in a uniform of grey suit with no tie and no shoes.
Over the next 100 minutes, he’ll continue to riff on connections, both in the songs and in his patter in-between. He learned recently, he tells us after that first song, that babies have far more neural connections than adults. Before the final song of the show, he’ll comment: “Maybe those millions of connections in our brains that got pruned and diminished when we were babies get reestablished. Only now instead of being in our heads, they’re in our connections with other people.”
This idea feels like a guiding principle not just for this show but for Byrne’s career, and his life. His early Talking Heads hits, some of which (like “Burning Down The House”) are included in American Utopia, can be seen as struggles to make connections with other people. The show itself is a web of collaborative connections, reflecting his versatility as an artist: Based on his 2018 album of the same name, American Utopia has generated a Broadway cast album, a picture book based on the illustrations on the curtain by his long-time collaborator Maira Kalman, and now this film.
Lee’s vigorous camerawork and editing — overhead shots, shots from upstage, close-ups of faces, of guitars and of bare dancing feet, occasionally shots of the audience in shadow – serves to enhance the excitement engendered by Annie-B Parson’s choreography and the moodiness of Rob Sinclair’s lighting. There is also an unmistakable Spike Lee touch in several of the political moments of the show, especially in the Janelle Monae song “Hell You Talmbout.”
When Byrne and the ensemble chant the names of murder victims, some more familiar than others– Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till – Lee has inserted their pictures, labeled with their birth and death dates; we see Amadou Diallo’s mother holding up his picture; and then, when the song is over, a bitter update: three photographs and dates of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, followed by a screen filled with other names.
As a kind of an adjunct to this concern with social justice, Byrne expresses dismay that only a little more than half of those eligible to vote do so, and only 20 percent in local elections – and then directs a spotlight on 20 percent of the audience, to illustrate how much of the audience is left in the dark. “We have to do better.” That’s why, he explains, he asked an organization called Headcount to set up a voter registration desk in the lobby.
This central connection – with the audience – inevitably feels at a remove when watching American Utopia on a screen.
At one point, Byrne explains to the audience how he conceived of the show:
“What if we could eliminate everything from the stage, except the stuff we care about the most. What will be left? Well, it will be us. And you. And that’s what the show is.”
But what if the “you” is in a separate place, and at a different time – a time when it would be inappropriate to call the explosive percussive rhythm of the show (as critics did last year) “infectious?”
That’s not the only aspect of this film that might give theatergoers pause. While watching American Utopia, Talking Heads fans will surely think of Stop Making Sense, the 1984 film of a Byrne concert at his geeky peak directed by Jonathan Demme (currently available on Amazon Prime), which some have deemed one of the best concert films of all time.
But theatergoers might well be thinking instead of Here Lies Love, Byrne’s inspired and innovative 2013 musical about former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcus. The third-floor LuEsther Hall of the Public Theater had been transformed into a dance club, complete with silver disco ball, but Byrne proved himself adept (with the help of collaborators) in establishing a clear set of characters and plot, and songs that advanced the narrative. All of that is absent in American Utopia.
There are some rocking rhythms and gorgeous harmonies in American Utopia. (I especially loved “One Fine Day.”) But there are also a few unintentional pangs, such as the final song, another Talking Heads hit, “We’re on a Road to Nowhere,” which takes on a sharp second meaning, as he and the ensemble wind their way through the audience, and we see them all without masks, hugging, actually touching.