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David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO)
David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO)

Film

David Byrne’s American Utopia is a Winning Concert Film

One of the most vital music movies of the year, is the filmed version of a Broadway show, featuring a nearly 70-year-old rock star alternately singing and monologuing. And it’s directed by… Spike Lee? 

David Byrne’s American Utopia began life in 2018 as a studio album by the Talking Heads frontman, his first in 16 years. The following year, American Utopia was adapted to the Broadway stage, with Bryne and other musicians performing songs from that album as well as some Talking Heads classics, like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House.” The show then went out on tour and is scheduled to return to Broadway, whenever Broadway opens again. 

Now, David Byrne’s American Utopia has been adapted into a concert film, which drew rapturous notices at the New York Film Festival, and it’s set to debut this Saturday on HBO and HBO Max. 

The film, set against a futuristic-backdrop with Byrne and his backing musicians in silver-grey costumes. The minimalist aesthetic uses entirely wireless microphones, in order to not be encumbered by extra “stuff” on stage, as the performers dance and arrange themselves into various tableaus. 

The project, overall, is relentlessly positive; the Utopia album was conceived of as part of a multimedia project called Reasons to Be Cheerful. I normally hate forced cheerfulness more than just about anything, especially during particularly dark times. But in this case, it works, because Byrne is such a dynamic performer, and the show itself is so well-conceived. Byrne is also the rare celebrity who can express such sentiments without coming across as corny or smug. 

In between the songs, there’s a little bit of storytelling, and a few political statements, mostly calling for people to vote. There’s one number, “Hell You Talmbout,” a version of a drum-heavy Janelle Monae song that name-checks Trayvon Martin and other Black people who have been killed in recent years, that could have been absolutely cringeworthy if done wrong, but Byrne has managed to pull it off. 

Like Disney+’s version of Hamilton before it, American Utopia has found an innovative way to film live theater, in a way that both captures the experience of being in a Broadway venue, but also doesn’t merely hold the camera in place. An outfit called  Radical Media was responsible for both, and it’s a solving lining of the closures of Broadway due to the pandemic that streaming services are emerging as a home for well-produced versions of live theater. 

David Byrne’s American Utopia doesn’t bear much of Lee’s directorial signature, although Lee has been directing concert films and stand-up specials for years. But American Utopia, thankfully, doesn’t waste its time with side tangents and other 

It isn’t quite up to the level of Netflix’s production two years ago of Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen on Broadway, which managed a small masterpiece out of The Boss’ stories-and-songs Broadway engagement from earlier that year. But American Utopia is still quite an achievement, one that very much gets across the unique stage charisma of David Byrne. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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