“I know sometimes the world is wrong. I know sometimes I do believe.”
Thus sings David Byrne during the second opening number of his Broadway show David Byrne’s American Utopia. The song, ‘I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong’ from his 1989 album Rei Momo, is a bit of a yearning lament over the distance between two people (“they’ll be wrong, until you’re next to me”). However, as the song leads into Talking Heads’ 1977 hit ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’ (a song about people who have become too comfortable in their convenient lives that they ignore the way humans are destroying the world), it’s also the beginning of a journey, through apathy, joy, despair, and hope.
Directed for the screen by the one and only Spike Lee, American Utopia is a wonderful viewing experience. Comprising Byrne and his 11-piece band on a bare stage, the show is both a retrospective of Byrne’s career, including songs from his band Talking Heads, as well as tracks from his solo career and a few collaborations, all culminating in an exploration that tries to make sense of the world.
The 11 band members, which Byrne all introduces individually in a segment part way through the show between songs, move freely around the stage, untethered by instrument stands or microphones. Instead, each percussionist and the keyboard player, who are usually restricted to one spot, wear their instruments mounted onto their bodies. Byrne has an explanation for this: humans love to look at other people, so why not remove everything from the stage, leaving just the most important things? Because, as Byrne says to the audience, “Looking at people? Yeah, that’s the best.” It’s a salient message that is even more relevant now than it was during the show’s late 2019 to early 2020 run (which was shut down early due to COVID-19). It also appeals to my habit when watching any stage show, where I seek out the most attractive ensemble member and keep an eye out for them; with the filmed version, the camera can move in closely around the stage so that each of the unfairly attractive band members get their close-up, Mr. DeMile.
The simple setting of a bare stage, framed by walls of long silver chains, with excellent lighting design by Rob Sinclair, which transforms the bare stage with each song, and each person costumed in the same all-grey suit and barefoot, creates an incredibly visually dynamic staging. Lee expertly explores these angles in a perfect synergy of camera and staging, focusing on shadows, using low-angle shots, or placing the camera at vantage points the theatre audience is not privy to. We sometimes spectate from a birds-eye-view, which is particularly fantastic during fan-favourite ‘Burning Down the House’, where the band moves like a pinwheel in precise unison, and the stage’s back corner, where the gold light filters through and silhouettes everyone in ‘Born Under Punches (Heat Goes On)’. Lee’s direction and use of camera work (helmed by cinematographer, Ellen Kuras) works to match the energy of each song. During Talking Heads hits such as ‘This Must Be the Place’ and ‘Slippery People,’ Lee pulls the camera back into the audience, so that the shadows of the audience on their feet, dancing and singing along, frames the band. In ‘Blind’, the camera tilts to match the effect of the band falling from one side of the stage to the other.
A live performance can be quite an electric thing. To be able to hear the music being played live on stage, to witness the staging in person, is hard to replicate on screen. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the performance on Broadway, but Lee has been able to pull off a replication of a feeling of infectious enthusiasm and energy. This enthusiasm is something equally noticeable in Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, recognised by many as one of the best concert films ever made. Like each member of the Talking Heads extended band in 1984, everyone on stage in American Utopia bounces around in their choreographed formations (choreography and musical staging by Annie-B Parson), but also sings along to the music with smiles on their face. They are just grooving along, and we get to be a part of it — a special shout out goes to guitarist Bobby Wooton III, who looks like he is having the time of his life, and vocalists/dancers, Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo, who, with each song, perform interpretive dances with precision and unison, allowing the music to flow through them, and take over their bodies. The effect is that we’re not only invited into being part of the fun, but the film also leaves a lingering impression beyond its 135 minute run: even listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the show now, I can still see Byrne and the band in my mind.
As someone who has spent most of the year listening to and becoming a big fan of Talking Heads, David Byrne’s American Utopia reminds me that all I need in life is good music, good friends, and to care about other people.
Between some songs, Byrne addresses the audience, prefacing and giving new meaning to songs, old and new, about topics such as how we lose the neural connections in our brains as we grow older, questioning whether that means babies are smarter than us. And he tells us about how a high school choir in Detroit reinterpreted the song ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’ from a song written about not liking having so many people in his home, to a song about welcome and inclusion.
In one segment, before the Dada song ‘I Zimbra,’ Byrne quotes the Dada artist Hugo Ball, saying that Dada was an art movement whose artistic aims were to “remind the world that there are people of different, independent minds, beyond war and nationalism”. Ball was referring to a world with the rising threat of Facism and Nazisim in the 1930s, but it also sounds like it could be applied to a recently voted out world leader.
Even though Byrne had been touring with American Utopia since 2018, it is easy to point out how relevant the film feels now. In one segment, Byrne demonstrates the importance of voting in local elections by using lighting cues to highlight 20% of the audience to represent the number of voters who voted in the last local election. This segment was quite startling when I first watched it in the midst of the week-long purgatory of the US Election, waiting with bated (but enduring) breath as each state counted their votes. In another, he and his band sing the protest song by Janelle Monáe, ‘Hell You Talmbout’ which calls on everyone to say the names of victims of police and racial violence. With Lee’s direction, the performance is intercut with images of the mothers, holding images of their children on a bare stage. The timing of this film seems especially pertinent, but if anything, the reminder of the show’s age, the breadth of years of the names called, and the images of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the names of many, many others are edited on screen at the end of the song, reminds us that the issues Byrne explores have always been relevant: the powder keg of 2020 and a life at home brings them only into sharper focus.
This being said, I do believe in the power of a film coming to you at the right time in your life. Once upon a time, Byrne told us to “stop making sense,” which he figured was pretty good advice. However, the advice no longer stands. Instead, as we stumble around trying to figure out how to make sense of a world which increasingly doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, American Utopia guides us, and breaks it all down to one simple thing: the connection between us and other people. The world is in turmoil and despair, and we may be on a road to nowhere, but it’s a ride we’ll take together. For one brief moment, it’s alright, baby, it’s alright.
David Byrne’s American Utopia is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm, Australia. She is a Co-Founder of youth on screen website Grow Up, a founding member of Rough Cut, and has written for Vogue Australia, Junkee, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema and more. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.