David Byrne has done something unique — appeared in two truly great concert movies in one career. The first was “Stop Making Sense,” in which Jonathan Demme captured the exuberance of a 1984 Talking Heads concert. The second is “American Utopia,” Spike Lee’s filmed version of the hit Broadway show Byrne was performing earlier this year until the pandemic closed theaters.
While I remain a Talking Heads fan, I am not familiar with Byrne’s more recent music, including most of the songs in this show, which are drawn from his 2018 “American Utopia” album. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the tunes (my wife called them “toe-tapping fun”), because Byrne continues to be a cool, clever writer with an instantly identifiable idiosyncratic voice, not to mention a passion for motion.
Throughout “American Utopia,” he and his multi-national band of eleven (half of whom are percussionists) keep moving around, thanks to choreography by Annie-B Parson. Not only that, they’re smiling! I’ve been to too many concerts where the people on stage did not look like they were having a good time — but Byrne and his band are clearly enjoying themselves.
Lee shoots the action from several angles, including directly overhead, which comes in handy for one Busby Berkeley-type sequence. He also doesn’t over-edit the footage like a music video. Thus, we get to linger on the musicians and singers as they perform on an otherwise empty stage surrounded solely by a glass-bed curtain.
Byrne does dig into his Talking Heads songbook for three classics: “Once In A Lifetime,” “Burning Down The House,” and “Road To Nowhere.” He also performs Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which he says he heard at the Women’s March in Washington on the day after Trump’s inauguration. Understanding it might be odd for an older white man to sing about young black men who have been killed by cops and white supremacists, Byrne called Monae and asked her permission to include the song in his show. Once she agreed, he performed it as an encore during his tour. In the Broadway version, he moves it up a few numbers, but it’s still very powerful, and Lee adds photos of the fallen to add to the impact.
“American Utopia” is a kinetic and highly enjoyable experience which I give an 8.5 out of 10. It’s playing on HBO this month and streaming on HBO Max.