Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Not Rated, 105 minutes
Directed by: Spike Lee
DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA is a filmed live stage show meant to be played loud. It’s a workout for your body, mind and soul. Functioning as a perfect companion piece to Jonathan Demme’s enduring masterwork STOP MAKING SENSE, director Spike Lee captures artistic minimalism with maximum cinematic impact. The electricity and excitement of a live concert combines with a highly compelling, contemplative exploration of the theme of connection. By emphasizing how, despite our differences, we’re united in an exalting celebration of music and dance, it shows the maturity and thematic depth of Byrne’s seminal songs and skills as a performer.
New York City’s Hudson theater stage may first appear shockingly sparse with its rectangular set dressed solely in three massive silver chain-link curtains and populated by an ensemble cloaked in conservatively tailored gray suits. Yet much color emanates from the cast’s choreographed performance. Occasionally a lamp or a table and chair will come into play, but for the most part it remains clear for the cast to work their magic. The orchestra and chorus are married into one when the elevated marching band of sorts totes their instruments all over the stage during sequences. Choreographer and musical staging director Annie-B Parson’s work is tremendous, and Lee brilliantly frames the action coherently and with reverence.
In between the musical numbers, a personable, expressive Byrne regales the audience with tales about everything from the science and psychology of interpersonal connections to dissecting how politics and television inform our worldviews. These complexities sound entirely wholesome and enlightened the way he delivers them, further developing a powerful through line for his lyrics to resound at a higher frequency. HAMILTON isn’t the only recent filmed musical to shout out immigrants’ contributions. This one does too before “Everybody’s Coming To My House” and again with greater focus when he introduces his wildly talented troupe – a diverse group of musicians from Brazil, Canada and all over the United States. These connections provide the poignancy that reverberates throughout the narrative and within the chords and chorus.
The audience provides a special connection, and the performers feed off their energy. The feeling is undeniable, joyful and infectious, causing the crowd to rise to their feet during the musical numbers – especially when Byrne and Co. play timeless Talking Heads hits like “Once In A Lifetime” and “Burning Down The House.” The house, in this case, feels like their spirits on fire, provoking a physical response of exuberance. The balcony balancing the camera bops in time with the beat, the patrons’ bouncing moving the frame. Within the first notes of “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” there’s a silhouette of a gentleman in the audience who leaps to his feet, raising his arms in the air as a jubilant gesture. This fleeting, spontaneous moment is tremendously moving, reminding us of the beauty of the live concert-going experience, synergistically matching Byrne’s discussion about deriving gratification from seeing other humans.
Lee’s direction transcends the passive role of the camera and cold medium, fully immersing us into the gathering. Shooting from a variety of vantages on and above the stage, and from the back of the theater, helps to translate the emotionality of the choreography and music-forward sequences. He and cinematographer Ellen Kuras highlight Rob Sinclair’s lighting design for thematic benefits. There’s a wonderful aesthetic contrast between the togetherness in “Once In A Lifetime” and the solitude of “Glass, Concrete & Stone.”
As engaging art tends to do, things get political, since our deepened connections to each other have gotten political as well. Byrne explores this topic in his vamping on voting. He uses this large-scale artistic installation as a teaching tool for how to bridge the divide. This feels like a powder keg fuse that’s been lit in fellow activist Lee’s capable hands, making these sentiments land through the power of cinema. During “Hell You Talmbout,” a portion centered on connections violently stolen, photos of innocent victims of thoughtless brutality are shown culminating in an even longer list of names. Lee’s unblinking artistry and editor Adam Gough’s clean cuts crackle and snap.
“Road To Nowhere” closes out the show in a reconfiguration that snakes around the stage before circling the theatergoers in a conga line, interacting with them. It’s an exhilarating end note, leaving us hopeful that the concepts broached will enlighten folks and lead to greater harmony. That’s the utopian ideal – and these collaborators’ collective vision is sublime.
DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA premieres on HBO and HBOMax on October 17.