Fans of Jonathan Demme and The Talking Heads have long known the truth: Stop Making Sense is a perfect film. From its conception to execution, David Byrne and Demme crafted an iconic stage experience. Given the recent revival of Byrne in popular culture, Broadway and television, it an open secret that he could attempt to repeat the feat. David Byrne’s American Utopia proves the wait was for a moment and a movement. Spike Lee steps into the director’s chair, and with his incredible eye, the two deliver one of the finest films of 2020.
The set-up of American Utopia feels similar to Stop Making Sense on its face: David Byrne and his musical collaborators perform in front of an adoring crowd. Filmed during American Utopia’s run on Broadway, Lee and Byrne shed the stage show experience. Lee wields the simple production design to his advantage, creating beautiful compositions with lighting and beaded curtains that surround the stage. His iconic dolly shots are present throughout and god’s eye angles highlight the choreography. Just as relevant are the audience members caught by Spike’s camera. The moments of togetherness, joyful dancing, and amusement feel pointed as we enter our sixth month of quarantine.
It does not take long to establish why Spike would be interested in bringing Byrne’s show to life. Unlike Stop Making Sense, American Utopia crackles with political activism. Beyond his own activism, Byrne believes that we can positively change through our political actions. Byrne’s monologues and stories are about connection and facing adversity. He pokes fun at himself, knowing that as a white man “of a certain age,” he is a flawed vessel. As such, diverse musicians and performers make up the ensemble.
Overt symbols and protest anthems are brought onto the screen. A performance of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell you Talmbout” (with her permission) sends chills down your spine (especially with Spike’s visual assist). Colin Kaepernick frames an integral moment in the film, and the image of black fists raised burns into your mind. Byrne and Lee are completely in control of the feelings they will stir throughout the film, and they lean into these moments with purpose.
Talking Heads fans will likely tune in to hear Byrne’s most famous songs. For the most part, you’ll get them. Byrne has radically recontextualized some hits, and left others (like “Psycho Killer”) at home. The selections fit the themes of American Utopia, including a blaring “Burning Down the House” and hopeful “Guess This Must Be the Place.” Byrne’s own musical ability is never in question, and the use of live instruments provides some of the best sound work in a Spike film to date. Perfectly leveled, but roaring when needed, it’s a triumph.
American Utopia represents a perfect collaboration between filmmaker and musician. Spike has often flirted with making musicals, with both Dorm Daze and Chi-Raq having musical scenes or qualities. However, his ability to wield music has never been in doubt. Together, Byrne and Spike channel a message of activism and hope. Despite the dark things we have done to ourselves, we can overcome hate. With a James Baldwin quote in hand, Byrne laments that we can make America the place we believe it should be. The roaring film is another triumph from two of America’s greatest artists.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA IS AN 9 OUT OF 10.