‘American Utopia’ review: Spike Lee presents David Byrne in all his glory

New York's finest team up for a greatest hits extravaganza that doubles as one of 2020's best films

A film of a smash Broadway show in which the primary focus is a 68-year-old white man in a suit? Sounds like the synopsis for ‘Hell: The Movie’, but don’t roll your eyes until you know the details. David Byrne and Spike Lee’s American Utopia is one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

First came American Utopia the album, the former Talking Heads frontman’s 2018 solo offering. Then came American Utopia the Broadway production, in which Byrne replaced many songs from the record with classic Talking Heads tunes and a few nifty surprises. After that, he put out ‘”…The Best Live Show Of All Time” —NME’, a live EP named after this publication’s glowing review of said show. Now, for American Utopia the film, Byrne has enlisted Spike Lee to make a documentary that doubles as a greatest hits extravaganza.

As partnerships go, it’s a winner from the get-go. Byrne himself is joined by 11 ace musicians on stage, chiefly from America, Canada and Brazil, while their triumphant performances are choreographed with grace and vitality by Brooklyn dance legend Annie-B Parson. Editor Adam Gough stitched the film together from several gigs, though it flows smoothly as one. Elsewhere, Lee recruits Ellen Kuras as his cinematographer for the third time, following He Got Game and 4 Little Girls. She captures Byrne in all his manic glory via a host of different ways including on-stage close-ups, overhead shots and roving camerawork. The wild finale – a rousing version of ‘Road to Nowhere’ – is particularly impressive, Kuras taking the viewer deep into a joyous crowd.

Naturally, any filmed gig that includes David Byrne will always be compared to Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s masterful 1984 concert movie that featured Talking Heads in their prime. Sadly, Lee’s feature doesn’t include a triumphant version of ‘Girlfriend Is Better’, but there’s plenty else to enjoy. Minimal production design – the set is free of amps and microphones – allows us to fully focus on the 12 barefoot musicians, who are immaculately attired in sharp grey suits, their efforts illuminated in striking purple and green.

David Byrne
David Byrne and Spike Lee are on shared producer duties. Credit: BFI

When the music stops, Byrne’s natural charisma comes to the fore. His patter, part TED talk philosophy and part stand-up comedian is nearly as interesting as the songs themselves. Funky art-pop originals like ‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Burning Down the House’ and ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ are among the finest tracks recorded in the past 40 years, but these versions are remarkable in their reconfiguration. It’s hard to pick a highlight but we defy anyone to stay still during a soaring performance of ‘Lazy’ (Byrne’s 2002 collaboration with electro duo X-Press 2). In addition, Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ gets an urgent workout while images of black lives lost to US police brutality appear on screen. It’s a rare concert film that packs in brilliant music, incredible visuals, a vital political message and jokes – but this is one of them. Don’t miss it.

Details

  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Starring: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Angie Swan
  • Release date: October 14 (London Film Festival)
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