David Byrne’s American Utopia by Spike Lee [8/10]

I first saw Talking Heads live soon after they had released their debut Talking Heads: 77, maybe in 1978. After the band, I failed to follow David Byrne’s solo forays into all manner of music but I admired his ironic, askew thinking, and kept touch with his writings. I guess I was skeptical when Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia” hit the cinemas, for it would be a live concert rendered flat in the filming, surely? Not so at all. This movie is a triumph. Since the 1980s, Byrne has been an imaginative choreographer of his concerts and here he assembles an astonishingly diverse and talented group of musicians and singers, maxing out in particular on drums and percussion. On a simple stage set, the dozen performers (including Byrne in resplendent, apt voice) play out elaborate dance scripts as they showcase a wonderful range of Byrne’s simple-yet-intricate tales of modern life. Most rock film directors add little, but Lee employs a rich array of cameras that constantly shift in attention, from birds-eye panoramas to bustling barefoot dance scenes to performer close-ups. He manages to keep Byrne always at the center of his narratives whilst fitting in the panoply of the others in full flight. The overall arc of Byrne’s songs, interspersed with intelligent patter, is that of alienation and coming together. Some rousing political songs stirred my heart. Post-concert footage rounds out the experience beautifully. If you hanker to see a stellar concert, wonderfully rendered, without stepping into a concert hall, David Byrne’s American Utopia is the movie for you.

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