It would be hard – nay, impossible – for David Byrne and Spike Lee to eclipse Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, but I’ll be damned if American Utopia (now available on HBO) doesn’t give the greatest concert film of all time a run for its money.
Comprised of mostly recent songs along with choice selections from Byrne’s esteemed solo and Talking Heads’ catalog, American Utopia covers a lot of topics and themes over its one hour and forty-five minutes of running time: our confusion, our collective sense of displacement, and the idea that this country has lost its footing in the world. In short, that we are unmoored and that we’ve misplaced the basic sense of decency that we thought defined us.
What’s amazing is how this vibrant film does it…with joy.
That’s the feeling that came over me most while watching American Utopia. That it was an expression of pure joy. While most of the credit for the film’s raucous, uplifting vibe must go to the show’s creator and resident genius, David Byrne, I would be remiss not to give credit to Spike Lee’s peerless direction.
Spike’s work here is both dynamic and unfussy. He uses a series of eclectic angles along with tight close-ups and wide shots, but he never forgets to make sure that you feel the music, this music.
And oh, what glorious music it is!
While it’s no surprise that the more recognizable Talking Heads cuts are exhilarating (Once In A Lifetime, Naïve Melody, Burning Down The House) and rendered in fabulous fashion, it’s remarkable how well the newer songs (especially Everybody’s Coming To My House) hold up around classic Heads tracks.
This is a show performed so wonderfully that it’s hard to pick out a high point because the whole damn 105 minutes is a high point. How do you pick which performance of a song is first among equals? Best not even to try, but to instead let it all this glory wash right over you. And my, how we could use such an exaltation.
We live in such awful, uncertain times, and this show recognizes that implicitly and explicitly—see the cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which is largely a chant of the names of murdered black people like Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, among others. But it’s also something else. In its recognition of the horrors we live through daily, the ironically titled American Utopia offers more than anger, it offers hope—even when singing about being “on a road to nowhere.”
The world is not static. We are not stuck. Not as long as we still have a beat in our hearts and breath in our lungs. We can change things. We can bring about “one fine day.”
That’s the word I heard from Byrne and his fellow grey-suited and shoeless co-conspirators performing on a tight stage draped with what looks like a chain mail curtain.
Have heart. Have life. Don’t give up. Don’t you ever fucking give up.
Message received—loud and clear.