BFI LFF 2020

David Byrne’s American Utopia review – a comfort blanket for troubled times

The inimitable Talking Heads frontman teams with Spike Lee for this joyous celebration of where we are and where we're going

David Byrne and Spike Lee have given us something relentlessly and entirely joyful with this filmed version of Byrne's acclaimed 2019 Broadway show – a much-needed and frankly rejuvenating tonic for these strange and troubled times. Watching it is like being lifted out of your own life, wrapped in a comfort blanket and transported to another dimension where rationality, respect, and creativity are revered above all else.

Of course, it's impossible to lay eyes on David Byrne's American Utopia without considering its connection to Byrne's iconic 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. That masterpiece was directed by the late Jonathan Demme with heaps of his trademark humanism and is now (rightly) considered by many as the greatest concert film of all-time. Thirty-six years later, the former Talking Heads frontman returns to the stage – this time without his shoes! – to push a similar experience and is joined by a dazzling company of multi-talented musicians, singers, and dancers. Dressed alike in futuristic grey suits, the show supposes, quite rightly, that a true American utopia isn't one made up of just Americans; this troop stem from all over the world – Brazil, Canada, France, you name it.

The show unravels as a Greatest Hits package, Byrne performing some of his best-known songs, many of them reworked for this new presentation alongside intricately performed dance routines. “This Must Be the Place” reaffirms its (ahem) place as an all-time great, while the show's final, glorious, motion-fuelled rendition of “Road to Nowhere” brings the audience to a state of near euphoria. Stop Making Sense fans will also notice the lamp's back, too, though perhaps in a nod to the passing of time – and out of respect for that film's most luminous moment – Byrne abstains from actually dancing with it.

All those years ago, Byrne's now infamous oversized suit also brought a sense of the avant-garde to proceedings. Well, this time the suit fits (is Byrne trying to tell us he's more comfortable in himself now?), though the experimental juices are still in full flow – if a little more understated. A minimalistic set allows the music and movement to come through without any needless distractions. Between numbers, Byrne entertains us with little anecdotes and thoughts about where we are and where we might be going. There are political ideas running through American Utopia, too, but Byrne doesn't present himself as a prophet. Just somebody convinced that we all have it in us to be better – himself included.

Behind the camera, Lee makes an elegantly understated contribution, translating the show into cinematic terms without ever getting in the way. In the Da 5 Blood's filmmaker's very capable hands, American Utopia always feels urgent and alive – especially as Byrne and company come to a thematic climax with a mesmerising cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” Lee cutting in dynamic dolly shots displaying the names, faces, and relatives of Black people who died as a result of police brutality – a moving tribute to lives unnecessarily lost.

This is such wonderful, warm, life-affirming stuff. Byrne might not quite find the Utopia of the title, but for just under two hours, he gets very close indeed.

American Utopia was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

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