What could David Byrne and Spike Lee possibly have in common?
That question is answered in David Byrne’s American Utopia, Lee’s document, as director, of Byrne’s Broadway show, which ran from October 2019 to February 2020. That time frame is crucial, as it was a moment when both artists underwent a creative resurgence—Lee with the likes of Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman and Byrne with American Utopia, his first solo album in 14 years. Equally invigorated, the pair zeroed in on a careers-long common concern that seemed to be at a breaking point: discontent with the American dream.
Less concert film than musical art installation, David Byrne’s American Utopia elucidates that concern in a way that manages to put both artists’ distinct, idiosyncratic gifts on display. This is a work that thrums equally with Dada despair and do-the-right-thing agitprop, while somehow still managing to culminate in liberating exuberance. If American Utopia paints a doomsday scenario of the state of the union, it also offers joyous hope for a national rebirth.
Byrne shares the stage with about a dozen singers, dancers, and musicians from around the globe, all dressed—as he is—in gray suits and sporting bare feet. Long strands of glistening beads form a box on the stage, hemming the performers in as if they were well-dressed inmates in an elegant prison. In between contemplative soliloquies by Byrne, the ensemble performs spirited renditions of both American Utopia tracks and earlier Byrne songs (including those by Talking Heads). The choreography, by Annie-B Parson, is at once precise and delirious, with backup dancers/singers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba exhibiting a thrilling connection both with Byrne’s lead movements and each other. (I could have watched those two the entire time.) This effusive crew, at once riotous and rigid, may be in prison, but they’re going to make beautiful music anyway.
Across his career, Lee’s discontent has largely been social and confrontational, while Byrne’s has been more existential and ruminative. In one of those early soliloquies, Byrne says, “I”m observing. I’m trying to figure this out.” While talking at another point, Byrne mimics the chopping-hand motion from the music video for Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” bringing the disillusionment of that 1980 song right into the present day. Introducing “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” from American Utopia, Byrne recalls how a Detroit choir once performed a more celebratory version of it that he found “profound” (and likely resonates with my own, more eschatological interpretation). Byrne admits he thinks the man in the song is more despondent about his situation, and then leads a performance of the track that miraculously manages to combine both points of view.
If Byrne’s discontent ripples slyly beneath the music, Lee finds ways to put it front and center. As you might expect, he employs a stronger directorial hand than Jonathan Demme brought to the great Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. (After all, another thing Lee and Byrne share is the fact that they are bold stylists.) And so we get camera angles from above the stage, capturing the patterns of movement that Byrne and his cohort create, as well as an exhilarating Dutch angle employed when all the musicians run to one side of the stage, making it look like they’re aboard a tilting cruise ship.
Thematically, Lee emphasizes some of the things Byrne is trying to “figure out.” A projected image of athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick during “I Should Watch TV” brings the real world bursting into Byrne’s arty imaginarium. You can feel the impact of this later when Byrne introduces a performance of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” by saying, “I need to change.” He then fades into the background as his bandmates take turns, in the manner of Monae’s song, demanding that the audience join them in citing the names of Black victims of police and racial violence. Throughout the song, Lee cuts away from the stage completely for insert shots zooming in on large portraits of each murdered person.
Somehow, this all feels seamless. If Stop Making Sense was Demme generously setting the stage for Byrne’s particular, bizarre sort of brilliance, American Utopia is Byrne making space, in the midst of that brilliance, for someone like Lee to both challenge and motivate him as a fellow artist. The performance proper ends with a rendition of “One Fine Day,” from Byrne’s joint 2008 album with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. That has always struck me as one of Byrne’s most unironically hopeful songs, unusually free of caustic critique or God-blaming anger. But here, sung acapella by the entire ensemble, honed by the hardship Lee has brought to the stage, the song sounds truly transcendent. On the verge of a crucial historical moment for America, what a gift to have art like this remind us that “everything can change.”