REEL Review – David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

Director: Spike Lee | 1h 45mins | Documentary, Music

Spike Lee documents former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne’s 2019 Broadway Show of the same name.

American Utopia is essentially David Byrne rifling through Talking Heads hits and other songs while taking small intervals to talk to his audience, walking them through his thought-process or the origin of the songs. Something like this feels slightly catered to Talking Heads fanatics, but the sheer stage presence of Byrne and his band, as well as the kinetic choreography that is constantly on show, makes this wildly entertaining beyond measure.

It’s fine being a great Broadway production, but turning it into a film demands that it be cinematically relevant. Luckily it has a director who’s vision equals that of the man on stage. Lee’s direction allows us to experience the full scope of the show, after all the intoxication of it is lost if you aren’t one of the people dancing in the crowd. It feels like the exact way in which David Byrne wants his show to be experienced, and Lee achieves this by fluctuating between camera angles and cutting between the feet stomping beats we see in each song.

The master camera is utilised to it’s full potential, occasionally rising as songs refer to prayers or speaking to God, or capturing the symmetry of the choreography from an aerial view to really feel the connection between dance and song. One song sees the band pretend to slide across the stage as if gravity is taking it’s toll, but thanks to the camera’s placement it works far better than if you were watching the show in-person. It’s clear Lee and Byrne are on the same wave-length, allowing the film to benefit from three different mediums that all work in harmony because of the clear connection the two visionaries are sharing.

After all, a theatre show is nothing without an audience, and Lee’s subtle direction captures the essence of glee we can feel oozing from crowd.

The stage is simplistic, nothing but the band and beautifully lit strains of lights making a square in which the band works on. At one point Byrne explains that he wanted to fill the stage with the only thing people connect to, other people. It’s quite a genius way to amplify the quality of the entertainment, making it the only thing you can take away from a show that feels so simplistic. Even the wardrobe is monotone and dumbed down to grey suits, ironically making the people stage look somewhat dystopian. It’s obviously a show that has taken considerable planning and thought, but in the end Byrne just wants you to experience joy in it’s simplest form.

It’s safe to say then, that the audience is having an extremely good time. At least 70% of the time we see them rocking out as if they were at a gig rather than a Broadway show, but that precisely what it is. Each song is tonally different but provokes the same applaud at the end of every one – and you should hear the crowd noise when the band begin to play Once In a Lifetime, a joyous uproar of celebration from people who have been waiting the entire show to hear it. After all, a theatre show is nothing without an audience, and Lee’s subtle direction captures the essence of glee we can feel oozing from crowd.

One thing that’s difficult to wrap your head around is why Spike Lee is actually directing this. Maybe it’s a ‘game recognises game’ type of thing, with one creative having adoration for another (much like Scorsese with Bob Dylan), but it becomes clearer when Byrne performs a Janelle Monae song, one she performed during a protest in Washington, naming people who suffered racial abuse and died because of it. That kind of message is much more Spike Lee, and it’s the only time the film cuts from the production to show the victims faces, as well as a shockingly long list of names of other victims.

Not only is this continuously entertaining, but it’s a celebration of three mediums working so cohesively. The audience engagement of theatre, the exposure of emotion that music is capable of and the extra style that the camera adds – it all equates to such a unique experience, one that’s even better because of the people working on it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.


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