NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

When David Byrne, still reedy and diffident as a silver-haired 68-year-old, says to the audience at the beginning of American Utopia, "Thank you for leaving your homes," the moment is touchingly sincere. After the Broadway show, which this film documents closed in February 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, it is a moment that feels eerily suspended in time. That quality of being both out of time and utterly of the moment ripples through this glorious movie.

A crisp and straightforward concert film that is screening at the New York Film Festival before its October premiere on HBO, American Utopia presents Byrne as an artist caught somewhere between elder statesman and restless innovator. It's a comfortable role for him. He became a star with Talking Heads relatively early in his career and is still largely defined by that persona and early music legacy. But he has kept up a pioneering spirit somewhat uncommon to those artists who made their name via pop radio and MTV in the 1970s and '80s.

Filmed by Spike Lee in the Hudson Theatre, the show presents an intimate residency performance by Byrne who runs through a well-calibrated mixture of older standards and newer solo offerings. While the obvious roof-raisers ("Burning Down the House") are received with rapturous applause, the audience is clearly up for anything, given how much of the show they spend on their feet. Indeed, at one point, one of the cameras up in the balcony appears to be vibrating from the crowd's jumping.

Except for a brief splash of color provided by the whimsical Maira Kalman drawings covering the house curtain shown at the film's beginning, much of the show is a visually severe and monochromatic affair. The stage is a close and colorless rectangle bounded by a silvery metal curtain. Byrne and his 11-person ensemble (an international bunch, originating from Texas to Brazil) are dressed in muted grey suits that give them a uniform look. This effect is highlighted when Annie-B Parson's choreography has them pivoting and executing drills like some adult-scholar marching band.

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In the hands of Lee's cinematographer Ellen Kuras, though, the film becomes a richer tapestry than the staging might suggest. She alternates straightforward front-row angles of the ensemble with cuts to a back-of-the-house camera showing the audience bopping in their seats and a ceiling-mounted camera that, in one bravura move, circles in alignment with the band's pivoting maneuvers. Unusually for such shows that are shot live with Broadway audiences, Kuras also gets in close on Byrne's face, allowing his shock of white hair and serious-yet-quizzical demeanor creating an unexpected kind of gravitas.

Despite the name of the show, Byrne doesn't deliver an album play of his titular 2018 solo studio album. Only about a quarter of the show's 20 songs pull from that work. The rest comprise a lightning tour through his Talking Heads and solo catalog, often reimagining the originals with his ensemble's thumping, drum-heavy, and vibrant energy. "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" and "Slippery People" from Speaking in Tongues (1983) both pulsate with an infectious groove, while 1980's Remain in Light's "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" builds to a nearly roaring crescendo that makes even the album's already energetic presentation feel somewhat pallid. Performed with this kind of verve, even old chestnuts like the overplayed "Once in a Lifetime" come off fresh, particularly when Byrne and Parson introduce some playful riffs on his stiff dance moves from Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984).

Though a couple numbers closer to the end of the show slow things down somewhat, Byrne's non-Talking Heads material holds up just as strong. "I Should Watch TV", his St. Vincent collaboration from 2012's Love This Giant, lays a fervent beat beneath lyrics about connection, isolation, and technology whose concerns may be evergreen but in this moment even more so. "One Fine Day" and "Every Day is a Miracle" bring notes of grand uplift to balance out Byrne's somewhat clipped and self-consciously nerdy stage banter.

The politics of the day are introduced at first clumsily and then with great force. In one in-between moment, Byrne recalls helping to register voters in 2016 and makes a caustic comment about low electoral participation. Somewhat more elegantly, in the introduction to 1979's Fear of Music's "I Zimbra"—whose mixing-together of Fela Kuti Afrobeat, Brian Eno adventurousness, and absurdist goofiness—Byrne notes how the Dadaists were often responding to fascism and makes an argument for using nonsense to make sense in times of darkness.

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Later on, in what turns into the beating heart of the show, he and the band perform Janelle Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout," which he notes is "a protest song. It's also a requiem." As the gathered chorus shouts out the names of Black victims of police violence in America, demanding "Say his name!" and "Say her name!", Lee intercuts photos of each victim. In some cases, like Sean Bell and Eric Garner, a family member holds up their image and looks straight into the camera. It serves as a bracing moment of clarity.

Perhaps Byrne could have ended there, rather than closing with an audience pleaser ("Road to Nowhere") and marching through the audience to giddy acclaim. But this is ultimately more a concert film than a concept piece, and Monáe's barn-burner has the almost unintended effect of making some of the other material feel wispy in comparison.

For the most part, Byrne doesn't strain to stitch the elements comprising American Utopia together too tightly. His opening and closing reflections draw some connections between the neural pathways and interpersonal connections, all in the service of suggesting some upbeat thematic string. But ultimately, it's the music and Byrne's slightly nervous happiness that make that message ring out.

American Utopia highlights joys from the past while acknowledging the pains of the present. It then points us toward the future with a querulous optimism that maybe, just maybe, we will again experience this kind of collective euphoria in person, together. Perhaps we won't reach utopia, but anything besides dystopia feels worth striving for at this point.