With “American Utopia”, David Byrne Shares a Hopeful Vision for the Future
By Noah Gittell
At the end of “American Utopia”, the Spike Lee-filmed performance of David Byrne’s Broadway stage show, the house lights come up and Byrne and his band march through the aisles of the Hudson Theater, mingling with the enthusiastic crowd, belting out “Road to Nowhere” in one glorious voice. Watching this, a single thought ran through my head: How nice it must be to stand so close to other people without wearing a mask.
I saw “American Utopia” on the stage back in January, another lifetime ago. It was a beautiful experience then, but it takes on extra meaning now. Not just due to its intimate setting — the audience at the Hudson feel as if they are right on top of the stage — but because of the themes of community and connection that comprise Byrne’s lyrics and his deadpan stage banter. The songs, a mix of cuts from his 2018 album the show is named after, as well as classics from his Talking Heads days, explore the anxieties of life in the modern world, but they do so without dread. “We’re only tourists in this life,” Byrne muses in song. “Only tourists, but the view is nice.”
Byrne is the center of the show, physically and creatively, and nearly 40 years after he redefined the concert film with the Jonathan Demme-directed “Stop Making Sense”, he remains a uniquely compelling figure onstage. With his gangly physique and thousand-yard stare, his soul is sometimes hard to locate, but he makes the most of what he’s got. Byrne’s comfortable with his discomfort. He talks openly about how he hates having guests at his house (fittingly, just before “Everyone’s Coming to My House”), and he has an entire song about his poor dancing skills (“I Dance Like This”). He hasn’t changed much, except for the shock of white hair. He used to look like an art school hunk. Now, he’s a cool grandfather.
Although Byrne no longer has the Talking Heads to back him up, the unorthodox frontman has surrounded himself with a talented band of newcomers. They play a note-perfect slate of complex songs while marching in place and maintaining an air of uninterrupted enthusiasm throughout the show. It’s a diverse — and attractive — array of performers; Byrne calls out their home countries, which include Brazil, France, and the U.S., at one point, which leads to a brief pro-immigrant interlude. It’s an easy applause line for the New York crowd, but it also points to the broader theme of the show. Liberals are often accused of being too “utopian” in their thinking. Here, Byrne embraces the idea and shows us what it looks like in spirit. There is a strong emphasis on silence, a pro-voting rap, and even a song that alludes to Black Lives Matter. And yet because Byrne is so earnest, it rarely feels political. “Sing for your supper, and love one another,” they sing, summing up Byrne’s inclusive worldview with remarkable efficiency.
To film the proceedings, Spike Lee and his cinematographer, Ellen Kuras (“Neil Young: Heart of Gold”), see the stage as a three-dimensional space, filming the troupe from the front, back, above, and everywhere in between. Lee’s camera tilts and whirls when necessary, but it mostly focuses on the performers. The choreography tends to pair them off into groups, and Lee makes sure to keep several of them in the frame at once, so we can choose which one we want to look at. “What do people like looking at the most?” he asks the audience, explaining the mostly empty set. “Other humans.” Byrne chose his wisely; he invites a compelling cast to share the stage with him, and Lee gives us space to choose our favorites.
They’re all having such a good time that you can’t help but be infected by the good vibes. It makes up for the fact that the songs, the banter, and the thoughtful camera choices never quite add up to the profound whole Byrne is clearly aiming for. His music is artsy and intellectual, and it’s not for everyone. You may find yourself loving three or four songs and tuning out the rest. Others will be enraptured by his ambitiously hopeful vision. Either way, 100 minutes with a band of merry troubadours is time well spent. Let’s have a little music before the whole house burns down.
“American Utopia” premieres on HBO and HBO Max October 17.
Photo Credit: Variety