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byrne and his band members perform
David Byrne in American Utopia.
Photo: HBO

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American Utopia is a life-affirming experience from David Byrne and Spike Lee

The film version of Byrne’s Broadway show is just wonderful

Polygon is reporting from the remote edition of the annual Toronto International Film Festival, bringing you first looks at the upcoming movies headed to theaters, streaming services, and awards season. This review came from a TIFF screening.

Making a live performance feel as energized on tape as it was in the moment is nearly impossible. But Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is now the subject of not one, but two concert films that somehow manage to be as joyous and life-affirming as their live equivalents. The first, Stop Making Sense, debuted in 1984 and was directed by Jonathan Demme. The second, David Byrne’s American Utopia, is landing on HBO on Oct. 17, and was directed by Spike Lee.

American Utopia, a filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway show (which was based on a concert tour, based on a studio album), features Byrne and a band of musicians, all dressed in grey suits, but with bare feet. The show takes the audience through songs from the album of the same name, as well as past songs from Byrne’s oeuvre, with a show-stopping rendition of Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout.” The songs are broken up by occasional monologues from Byrne, who ruminates on everything from growing older to the work of the novelist and activist James Baldwin.

byrne and his band perform
David Byrne and his bandmates.
Photo: HBO

From the moment the film begins, it’s clear that Lee has no interest in capturing the show straight-on. He shoots it like a movie, not just like a theatrical performance. He takes the audience into places they wouldn’t normally see, from the ceiling of the Hudson Theatre, where the show was filmed, to behind the beaded curtain that surrounds the performers on three sides. Far from decreasing the show’s sense of wonder, these looks behind the curtain enhance the experience, capturing every aspect of the show’s brilliant lighting and choreography.

As the show progresses, the message Byrne is trying to send becomes clearer. As Byrne warbles, “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” in “I Should Watch TV,” the back wall of the stage is dominated by a giant projection of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player whose protests of police brutality and systemic racism set off a national furor. The image is the only projection used in the entire show. Byrne’s lengthiest monologue is about the importance of voting — and it includes a note to the audience that there are volunteers waiting in the theater to help them register to vote. The status quo has to change, the show suggests, and we can’t afford to wait around for someone else to spark it.

That message becomes clearest during “Hell You Talmbout,” which shies away from the dance-party feeling that characterizes most of the rest of the film. Up to that point, any shots of the audience feature people dancing and bobbing their heads, or standing up from their seats in order to groove along with the music. When Byrne launches into Monáe’s song, which calls upon listeners to say the names of Black people who have been killed by police and racial violence, that carefreeness drops away. The visible audience members (who are predominantly white) suddenly look solemn, and the dancing appears to have stopped. At that point, Byrne and Lee aren’t just out to show the audience a good time; they’re trying to spur people into action.

the two men smile into the camera
David Byrne and Spike Lee.
Photo: HBO

With each name — Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland — Lee cuts away from the onstage action to show photographs of the victims, sometimes held by members of their surviving families. And though their names aren’t spoken — the show closed in February 2020 — Lee includes photographs of more recent victims Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, too. Lee showcases the performance in a way that’s only possible through film, transforming his version of American Utopia from a secondhand experience into an entirely new beast.

Even for those unfamiliar with Byrne’s work, the film feels urgent and joyous, as the performers, following Annie-B Parson’s choreography, caper and cavort across the stage. The songs aren’t narrative, at least not in the explicit way they would be in a traditional musical, but their themes form a shape in Byrne’s hands, coalescing around the conflict that seems so prevalent in present-day America, and the necessity to be kind to each other, and to do the work to create a better tomorrow. The prodigious delight he can conjure up gives way to a broader feeling of empathy that turns the instinct to dance and sing into the instinct to act.

American Utopia will last past the current moment, past the pandemic, but in the cultural context of its upcoming release, it feels both like an electric current and a balm. While it still isn’t the experience of a live concert, it follows Stop Making Sense in coming close, by replicating the pure joy of attending a concert — or a protest — and suddenly feeling bonded to a bunch of strangers. In a time of quarantine, when isolation is still de rigueur for so many, that’s something special, and well worth celebrating as a triumphant piece of art.

American Utopia will debut on HBO on Oct. 17.