Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

American Utopia (2020) American Utopia (2020)

Vibrant, veteran New York artists combine for a wonderful concert film experience.

Ok, up-front: yes, this has the grey suit… kind of. Not as big, but more of them. And yes, American Utopia is of a piece with Talking HeadsStop Making Sense – both are directed by outstanding film-makers with their own distinct styles, and just as Jonathan Demme does in that film, Spike Lee here mostly applies only a light touch, adding only the occasional personal flourish while, for 90% of the film, being as transparent a window onto proceedings as is possible when still indulging multiple camera angles and the impulse to cut between them a little more often than necessary.

For a rock star, David Byrne‘s aesthetic is less about the club and more about the theatre – from the use of space and lighting, down to choreography and cues. In recent years, his live shows and documentaries have explored Color Guard marching bands, and his recorded and live collaborations with St Vincent are all about carefully designed moves and moments.

Where other rock stars create movement and colour with costume and scene changes, for American Utopia, David Byrne works within a fixed, monotone framework, and explores its possibilities through blocking and lighting.

Byrne and his wireless musicians, in costume designer Martin Greenfield‘s gorgeous grey suits, within a “flat” grey box of chainmail walls, are deployed in various permutations and combinations choreographed by Annie-B Parson, accentuated and punctuated by Rob Sinclair‘s stark lighting designs. It’s reminiscent less of arena rock shows, and more of the inventiveness and resourcefulness required to create a dynamic theatre experience out of a run-down New York warehouse squat. There is constant movement – and, while Byrne cleverly lets his band do most of the moving, he is absolutely no slouch, his voice loud and strong, and his near-septugenarian energy and stamina remarkable.

And of course, this is all in service of a catalogue of fantastic songs, from his early Talking Heads material to his most recent material – and a cover of a Janelle Monáe track which brought this viewer to tears, and which featured Spike Lee’s Spike Lee-est visual moment, a moment specifically about race in America, which… as Soraya Nadia McDonald in NPR‘s Pop Culture Happy Hour observed, “in a show that is called American Utopia, you have to sort of acknowledge, ‘What are the barriers to getting to the place that “Must Be The Place”?’.”