David Byrne is the deity we never knew we needed. In Spike Lee’s filmed version of the former Talking Heads frontman’s show American Utopia, the 68-year-old morphs in front of the audience’s eyes into a white-haired, barefoot Messiah in a steel-grey suit. He is surrounded by an ethereal glow as he performs Once in a Lifetime and raises his arms as if beckoning followers forward during the brilliant new track Everybody’s Coming To My House. This is inspiring, experimental movie-making in which it feels as if you’re ascending to a higher plane.
Filmed in New York, the movie is a restaged version of Byrne’s acclaimed Broadway production, using the music from his 2018 album of the same name. It’s a fascinating musing on the world in the 21st century and the challenges, both new and timeless, we face as a human race. Byrne’s politics are clear – his union with this particular director is no accident – but this is no empty tirade against Trump. It’s a note of optimism for a work-in-progress America, the nation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton called a “great unfinished symphony”.
Byrne begins the show by waving around a plastic brain as he sings, before describing the way human beings lose brain connections as they get older, pruning the unnecessary to amp up what’s needed. The relatively tight, square stage area is surrounded by hanging tendrils as if representing those brain receptors – or the severed connections between human beings at a time of hate and division. Within that space, Byrne is joined by 11 musicians of immense skill and quality, moving freely around Byrne in grey suits of their own and with nary so much as a flip-flop or an ankle sock between them.
As fans of Byrne and Talking Heads will be able to attest, the sound is unusual and experimental, merging crowd-pleasing pop anthems with avant-garde elements and myriad influences from all over the world. One of the tracks is inspired by nonsense poetry and emerges as a series of grunts, while he concludes the show with the Janelle Monae protest song against racial brutality Hell You Talmbout. Byrne’s persona, not to mention the energy and flair of his diverse, talented band, manages the transitions effortlessly. The show is less a focused manifesto than it is a desperate, fractured cry of hope for the future.
There’s a beauty in the way that American Utopia twists this music into a rallying cry. This is a performer who belts out Everybody’s Coming to My House as a pro-migrant anthem and interweaves recognisable Talking Heads hits with messages about low voter turnout and bizarre, philosophical meanderings that are just one step away from Lonely Island-a-like Incredible Thoughts silliness. Every time it threatens to stumble off the rails, Byrne’s humility brings it back to Earth – or whatever not-quite-Earth Byrne speaks from.
As a concert film, too, this is compelling. Lee brings his usual kineticism to the movie, swooping in for facial expressions or to frame the production from parts of the stage setup that are obviously inaccessible to an audience seated right in front of the performance area. It’s during the Hell You Talmbout number that the most quintessentially Lee flourish comes about, with a montage of remembrance for murdered Black people, culminating in an added frame listing those who have died since the performance, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
When the dust settles and the lights go out after a raucous rendition of Road to Nowhere in which the deity mingles with his people, it’s Byrne’s charisma and warmth that shines through. He comes across as a cult leader, but a benevolent one who recognises his own fallibility. Byrne knows he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s prepared to ask the questions through art and to accept that his own vision of the world isn’t necessarily the right one. It is, however, life-affirming, fascinating and seemingly ported over from a glistening future in which everything is so much better. 2020 needs David Byrne’s American Utopia.
Dir: Spike Lee
Scr: David Byrne
Cast: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Tendayi Kuumba, Bobby Wooten III, Angie Swan, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Gustavo Di Dalva, Jacquelene Acevedo, Daniel Freedman, Stephane San Juan
Prd: Spike Lee, David Byrne
DOP: Ellen Kuras
Music: David Byrne
Run time: 105 minutes
David Byrne’s American Utopia is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival.