Without a doubt, 2020 has been a year of loss. Lost hopes. Lost time. Lost loved ones. But, when there is a great amount of loss another emotion begins to rise; a tonic that can aggravate as much as it can heal: desire. Be it the desire for a less polarised social fabric or the desire for the tender touch of someone you have not held in too long.
Back in late 2019/early 2020, director Spike Lee and musician David Byrne could not have known the scale of what was around the corner. Yet, their collaboration – a concert film of Byrne’s hit Broadway show of the same name – serenades the desire for human connection/community that has been made more palpable by the current global situation. More importantly, however, American Utopia does this with a toe-tapping sincerity and truckloads of optimistic energy.
From the moment Byrne appears on stage caressing a model of a human brain, like a white-haired Hamlet, we soon realise that everything to come will be for a purpose. Someone – and for the life of me, I cannot remember who – once told me that Byrne wrote and performed music to get outside himself. As he is joined by his band, their instruments strapped across their chests, unhindered by wires or amps, and the music builds and builds, it becomes clear that everything is geared towards that end; that in many ways this is an exercise in building the foundations for human connection; of reaching out a hand in the hope someone will take it.
It is important to point out that this is also a Spike Lee joint. Like Stop Making Sense’s director Johnathan Demme, Lee is here to push Byrne’s exploits to their most mesmerizing heights. Tight close-ups of the performers’ faces, eyes, even their feet fold into roaming shots from onstage and off. Lee catalyses Byrne’s words and actions, and this untethered dynamism brilliantly conveys how there is no hierarchy on stage: every musician intermingles with one another like a river. The show’s choreography is simple and inviting but at the same time bombastic. The stage is bare but always populated. There is Dada absurdism, but there is also relentless entertainment.
Byrne and Lee’s message is clearly one of utopia, but vitally it is an achievable utopia; a utopia we are invited to partake in. It is therefore fitting that the show concludes with Byrne and co bursting off-stage and parading in and amongst the swaying audience, who are eagerly singing along to Road To Nowhere. In these final moments, the barrier between performer and audience member dissolves; individualism is seemingly banished. And while the destination may be unknown, it doesn’t matter because we have each other.
Let me just remind you of two startling facts: David Byrne is 68; Spike Lee is 63. Over a phone call with my grandmother – a few years older than Mr Byrne and Mr Lee – I asked her what she was doing when she was in her mid-sixties. Not once did she mention, a) lunging, skipping, and singing barefoot on a Broadway stage or b) instructing a camera crew to complexly careen through crowds of musicians and audience members. When I asked if the omission of similar activities was due to either lack of film funding or musical popularity, she replied, “God no, I would just rather be watching The Crown, with my feet up and a glass of Gordon’s!”
I only bring up age because it would be easy for these two great artists to sit back and rest on their laurels, God knows they have enough between them. But with American Utopia, Byrne and Lee truly push the boundaries of what is to be expected from a concert film. So, the only question that remains is: Would you like to come along?
Dir: Spike Lee
Scr: David Byrne
Prd: David Byrne, Spike Lee
DoP: Ellen Kuras
Music: David Byrne
Runtime: 105 mins
David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on Digital Download on 14th December and DVD on 11th January