Spike Lee is having a very good year at the cinema. Da 5 Bloods was a unique take on the Vietnam war genre, focusing specifically on the experiences of African-American veterans, and is one of the best films of the year. Now he returns with an infectiously enjoyable concert film in David Byrne’s American Utopia: which combines his pointed sensibility with the music of one of New York’s greatest icons.
Wearing a grey suit and no shoes on an almost empty stage, David Byrne appears totally in control of his performance, providing a marked contrast to his jittery, loose energy in Jonathan Demme’s classic 1984 concert movie Stop Making Sense. More noticeably there are no amps, no standing set-ups and no wires. As Byrne mentions to the audience, he wanted to make his performance as minimalist as he could, so there is the directest possible connection between him and his spectators.
Instead of a traditional drummer, Byrne has hired several percussionists. All with great upper body strength, they create a chaotic rhythm that’s addictively danceable yet never crowded. Other members of the cast seamlessly transition between dancing, back-up vocals, prop work and more, making the performances flow in an almost miraculous fashion.
The music — a combination of more recent Byrne compositions, classic Talking Heads cuts and even a Janelle Monáe cover — sounds fantastic, even if the older stuff still has that tinge of immortality that the American Utopia songs can’t quite reach. The polyphonic, polyrhythmic music, famously inspired by the rhythms of Africa, is complemented by the diversity of the ensemble, hailing from all over the world. Like any Spike Lee film, there is a political point to both the casting and performances, reminding us that diversity is our greatest strength.
While it can’t quite reach the heights of Jonathan Demme’s iconic film, which also had the fortune of capturing Talking Heads at the peak of their world-beating fame, Spike Lee injects a lot of his own filmmaking personality into the film. His classic floating shot is missing, but this performance is captured in a variety of tracking shots, birds-eye-view angles, and searching zooms. He even breaks most markedly with Demme’s technique by cutting to the audience (turns out that formula didn’t need to be messed with.)
Other choices inject classics with a new sense of urgency. “Once In a Lifetime” starts with a searching medium handheld shot on just Byrne alone; as if to stress the disorientation of the song’s protagonist. A cover of “Hell You Talmbout” gives a face to the names of African-Americans senselessly killed by racism with their family holding their picture, providing both a sense of rage and catharsis. Finally, “Road to Nowhere” finishes proceedings with a walk through the audience itself, everyone on their feet, simply happy to be in David Byrne’s presence.
Fully comfortable in his own weirdness, the famous singer even takes the time to chat with the audience, mixing between positive thinking, philosophy and democratic invective. Simply put, he is a true original and a delight to spend an evening with. This is a film enjoyed standing up and dancing along. Put it on full volume, and you’re sure to have a great time.