LFF 2020: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Bryne, the hugely talented singer, songwriter, artist, actor and founding member of Talking Heads, has collaborated with Spike Lee for one of this year’s most joyous films yet. In an unpredictable year where much of the arts has unfortunately had to shut (including Bryne’s own titular Broadway show), American Utopia is an uplifting celebration of the hugely talented artists, musicians and creatives involved in the sector.

Directed by renowned filmmaker Spike Lee, David Byrne’s American Utopia is an unique concert film. Much like the recorded version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton which arrived on Disney+ earlier this year, American Utopia is compiled from two live recordings of the Broadway show. Opening in October 2019 at the Hudson Theatre, the performance is based on an adapted version of the titular album, starring Byrne alongside 11 musicians on stage.

Thanks to Spike Lee’s dynamic direction and clever positioning of the various cameras, there’s a real intimacy to Bryne and the band’s performance. The close framing of the musicians immersively draws you in, subsequently transporting you directly into the packed theatre, with cleverly interspersed shots featuring a dancing audience reinforcing this notion. Overhead camerawork is also a real treat; affording us a unique perspective of the show that’s never been seen before. As someone who loves experiencing live music and performances, this felt like such a welcome return to that environment. It genuinally feels like having a concert in your own home, complete with the toe tapping and dancing!

Prepare to be sucked into the whole quirky-ness of the stage show too; there’s something so unique and welcomingly warm to it, particularly with Byrne’s Mr Rogers-esque persona. Between songs he often affectionately speaks to the audience; whether that’s to introduce the members of the band or passionately talk about the importance of voting – adding to the sincerity of the show. Each of the hugely talented musicians brings their own unique layer and stamp to the tracks, which are wonderfully brought to life through a number of tightly choreographed dances and performances. The sheer energy and stamina on display is also hugely impressive. They really do come together as one, personifying the unity Byrne so often calls for in his music.

Featuring a number of infectious Talking Heads hits, alongside Byrne’s solo and collaborative material – there’ll definitely be something for everyone in the film. Personal highlights include “Burning Down the House”, “Road to Nowhere” and the triumphantly powerful cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout”. This final track is admirably brought to life with a signature Lee flourish; after chanting the names of the minority victims killed by police violence, he cuts to shots of family members holding their photographs front and centre. It’s a passionate and emotional call to end the brutality, a strong notion which brought Byrne and Lee together. Byrne’s social commentary is well woven throughout the show, never feeling preachy or insincere, along with his vision for a connected sense of community.

Verdict

Uplifting, immersive and full of joy, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a real antidote for the post-lockdown soul, celebrating creativity, community and collaboration. At 68, the enthusiasm and artistry he exhibits on stage is hard to rival, along with the contagious energy he shares with his phenomenally talented band. This is definitely a must-watch!

Rating:

Nicola Austin

Nicola is the Editor-in-Chief of WHAH, alongside her day job in digital marketing. As well as writing for the site and podcasting, she is also a contributor to the fantastic JumpCut Online.

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