At a quiet juncture in American Utopia – filmed during a pre-pandemic Broadway run of shows from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – the singer once again finds himself onstage with a detached, long-stemmed lamp. This time he doesn’t swing it around with the same anxious energy as he did in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, a combustible and lauded milestone in performance cinema.
Instead Byrne – resplendent in a slightly more proportional grey suit – regards the exposed bulb as a warm notion to the past in a film otherwise committed to the idea of moving forwards. “What if we could eliminate everything from the stage, except the stuff that we care about?” he suggests, explaining the modest composition of American Utopia to a bewitched audience. The lamp is a gift, a connection to another moment in time that brought endless people – some in that room, many not – joy.
It’s funny, though not unintentional, that a man who’s so transparently at odds with other people is so focused on seeking and encouraging connections. During American Utopia’s set of solo songs and cherished Talking Heads material – delivered with a self-deprecating and stately air – Byrne indulges his audience with findings, memories and calls to action that are both personal, political, and all intertwined even if they don’t seem like it at first.
The connection between Byrne and his audience is palpable, as he stands open and barefoot in his spotlight, captured unobtrusively by director Spike Lee. That said, fortified bonds between artist and audience in concert films are to be expected; you need only watch the crowd at Paisley Park Studios bathe in the tangerine hue of Prince’s tangerine Sign O’ The Times suit, the transcendent onlookers swaying to ‘Love In Vain’ in The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, or the mute screams emitted by the Beyhive during Beyonce’s Homecoming.
When Lee shot American Utopia, a month before most of the world went into quarantine, no one on the stage could’ve entertained the value of what they were about to perform. During the six months before American Utopia’s world premiere in September, live music would be shut off from the world entirely. All major festivals would be pushed tentatively to 2021, only to be pushed back again as COVID cases continued to swell. Venues would close doors indefinitely.
People weren’t just craving a fan’s experience anymore, but the sticky floors and £7 beers that came with it. They craved the parts that came before, after and in between the setlist. They craved full sensory escapism and unity as the black hole engulfing the music industry continued to swirl and expand. You would struggle to find an experience as sensory and unifying as American Utopia.
Through its lifespan, the concert’s setlist also included a cover of Janelle Monáe’s percussive protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’, which is made up of a list of Black men, women and children killed by police in America, from Sandra Bland to Emmett Till. As part of Lee’s film – in which Byrne announces Monáe’s blessing before launching into song – family members of the victims stand behind large scale photos of their lost loved ones.
Always will this list of names continue to grow in a country built on and fuelled by systemic racism. Yet in light of George Floyd’s murder and the consequent wave of Black Lives Matter protests that began in Minneapolis and spread worldwide, it’s a rally cry that feels frozen in this epoch of our lives, and floods the stage with a blistering and lingering wave of pain.
My dad and I went to see the live version of American Utopia on a balmy June night in Hammersmith in 2018. He had grown up with Talking Heads, and I had formed my own relationship with their music while falling head over heels for Byrne’s awkward yet profound style of performance, as well as his trenchant fascination with the world.
As we stood silently side-by-side, as many sons and daughters stand silently next to their fathers – only with him swaying serenely and me crying and throwing my hands in the air – I let Byrne and his 11-strong band carry the connection between us for those magic few hours.
The BFI London Film Festival hosted a free screening of American Utopia as part of its online programme earlier this month. As Byrne appeared in the film, picking up a prop brain and beginning his setlist with a cerebral sermon, I thought of all of the people also watching in their rooms, moving aside furniture to dance and delight in the company of this barefoot ringmaster. Byrne might not have set out to forge connections on a universal scale quite like this, but that’s what he’s inadvertently ended up doing. And for that I’ll always be grateful to him.