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‘American Utopia’ Review: One of the Best Concert Docs Since ‘Stop Making Sense’

TIFF: 36 years after starring in one of the greatest concert films ever made, David Byrne teams up with Spike Lee for a worthy and urgent sequel.

American Utopia

“American Utopia”

YouTube/screenshot

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Even in an era when rock shows were all about orgiastic excess, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne made a warm and inviting spectacle out of his own smallness. The signature image from Jonathan Demme’s totemic concert documentary “Stop Making Sense” finds Byrne getting lost inside his own comically large silver business suit; maybe it was a Kabuki-like expression of a man being swallowed alive by runaway capitalism, or maybe — as Byrne maintains — he just wanted to make it look like his head had shrunken down to a funny size.

Not that it was ever big to begin with. As radical in his humility as he was humble in his radicality, art rock’s very own Mr. Rogers welcomed us into his neighborhood by singing about the building that he wanted to live in and pointing out the highway that would lead us there; he bent the confusion of being alive into an olive branch and mapped out how our race to the future left us speeding along on a road to nowhere. “Stop Making Sense” was like a “Koyaanisqatsi” you could dance to, and it’s star was just as lost as we were, the only difference being that he could find the rhythm in a world that felt like it was spinning off its axis (when Byrne “tripped” over the drum fill at the end of “Psycho Killer” it almost felt like the music was playing him).

That was in 1984, a year that became synonymous with dystopia long before it began. Cut to: 2020, a year that became synonymous with dystopia as soon as it started, and might be straight up post-apocalyptic by the time it’s over. And you may ask yourself: “How did I get here?” But that was always a rhetorical question, and Byrne watched the last several decades play out on TV like the rest of us. Now, on the eve of an election that has a queasily climactic feel to it, he’s back on our screens with another concert film: A softer, wiser, and yet far more action-able sequel to “Stop Making Sense” that resolves into one of the best movies of its kind that anyone has made in the 36 years since.

If “Stop Making Sense” was a polite request to slow down, “American Utopia” is a desperate plea to change course. So much is the same as it ever was — some of the songs literally remain the same — but where one film wondered where we were going, the other confronts the fact that we’ll never get there on our current path. In his own sweet and quakingly sincere way, Byrne implores us to admit that we’re lost, to ask for directions, and to steer toward the country we were promised with both hands on the wheel before it’s too late. If a word like “Utopia” can mean “good place” and “no place” at the same time, a word like “America” can too.

In other words, “American Utopia” isn’t just a concert doc, but also a life-affirming, euphoria-producing, soul-energizing sing-along protest film that’s asking us to rise up against our own complacency. To some degree, that aspect was always baked into Byrne’s recent Broadway show of the same name, a single performance of which is captured here; audience members were handed voter registration forms as they walked into the theater, and — in one of Byrne’s amusing interstitial monologues — shamed with the statistic that only 55% of eligible Americans voted in the last presidential election (a record high).

Like “Stop Making Sense” before it, you can tell that “American Utopia” was made by a master filmmaker by the end of the first song (which is “Here” in this case, and finds Byrne sitting alone in a gray box as he dissects a human brain with the same wonder and curiosity with which he once broke apart the building blocks of modern life in songs like “Found a Job”). From the close-up immediacy of the frame frame and the invisible architecture the camera then seems to build with each cut, it’s obvious that you’re not just watching a performance that was recorded for posterity, but rather a film that happened to be shot in real-time. At one point Byrne even refers to the show as a movie, which only enhances the sense that the audience members we see dancing in the front row are there for our benefit as much as their own (they make for great reaction shots).

As to which master filmmaker was behind the camera… well, that remains a mystery for the better part of an hour, until the question suddenly answers itself in a most righteous fashion. As Byrne and his lovable 12-piece band launch into a percussive cover of Janelle Monae’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout” and chant the names of some of the Black people who have been killed by police, the film cuts away from the performance for a powerful series of Spike Lee’s signature dolly shots, each one pushing in on a giant photograph of Eric Garner or Emmett Till or Sandra Bland (or, or, or…) that’s being held up by the victims’ surviving loved ones. Appearances by George Floyd and Breonna Taylor further emphasize the unavoidable nowness of a film that isn’t afraid to date itself because it knows that it will hold up forever, and probably all too well.

"American Utopia"

“American Utopia”

HBO

Of course, it would be severely blinkered to suggest that Lee only responded to the Broadway show because it namechecked James Baldwin, used a blow-up projection of Colin Kaepernick, and highlighted a diverse group of mega-talented musicians. “American Utopia” might be the whitest thing Lee’s made this side of “25th Hour,” but — in Byrne’s sotto voce way — the whole thing prods us to “WAKE UP!” with the same volume that Samuel L. Jackson shouted those words in “Do the Right Thing.”

Not that Byrne sings into a megaphone or rearranges a lifetime’s worth of classic bops into some kind of linear story à la “Mamma Mia.” On the contrary, Byrne merely reaches into his extensive songbook and pulls out the tracks that resonate most in the current moment and echo off each other in a way that makes them all sound richer. He’s the first to admit that he doesn’t know how to alter their meaning; an anecdote about the Detroit youth choir that improved “Everybody’s Coming to My House” from a curmudgeonly wail into a welcoming jam ends with the punchline that Byrne can’t change his stripes, and a performance of the song as we recognize it.

Even after that amusing preamble, the song still hits different. All of them do. The set list ranges from immortal Talking Heads cuts like “This Must Be the Place” and “Burning Down the House” to solo gems like “Glass, Concrete & Stone,” standouts from the albums he made with St. Vincent or Brian Eno, and a handful of tunes from the “American Utopia” album that led to the concert tour that led to the Broadway show that led to the movie, but every number here feels like it belongs to the same equation.

Annie-B Parson’s vividly simple choreography allows these songs to speak to each other more fluently than ever before; one part Pina Bausch and one part Jeanne Dielman, the movements insist upon the sheer pleasure of watching people. “Stop Making Sense” might have started with a joke about live accompaniment (“Hi. I’ve got a tape I’d like to play”), but “American Utopia” never lets us forget the relationship between noise and the people who make it — that the harmonies we’re hoping for won’t just manufacture themselves.

Every aspect of this spectacle insists that we need to hear and see each other instead of just bopping our heads along to the beat, and Lee’s mellifluous direction allows that idea to reverberate through your body without drowning out the music. From bird’s-eye views of the stage to ecstatic close-ups of the band, Lee’s cameras take us closer into the show than an actual ticket ever could. It’s hard to compete with live performance, but “American Utopia” — with its focus on piercing through the matrix of different screens that have calcified into mirrors — is uniquely well-suited to be watched secondhand. Sure, the bit where Byrne addresses the crowd with a “thank you for leaving your homes” is dripping in more irony than he could have imagined at the time, but not being together is hardly the only thing that’s keeping us apart. An exuberant encore reiterates that we’re still on the road to nowhere, but the first step on the path to utopia will always be acknowledging that it may not exist.

Grade: A

“American Utopia” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It will air on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max on Sunday, October 17.

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