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American Utopia

The Broadway show version of David Byrne’s album, filmed by Spike Lee, is a confident, thought-provoking, political answer to Talking Heads’ much-lauded Stop Making Sense concert film.

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This is not just a protest song. I see this song as a possibility. A possibility to change your mind. The possibility to change me. To change you.

David Byrne

A fan of the Talking Heads probably has a pretty good grasp of what ‘David Byrne’ is; what sort of entity possesses him, what his humanity exudes.

Some people call him autistic, some people call him a control freak, some people blame him for the break-up of the band, and some people simply just call him lovely. It doesn’t matter if he’s all of those things or none. David Byrne is the most switched-on, empathetic, earnest and honest artist who’s transitioned from underground new wave pop star to a transcending humanitarian.

Coupled with Spike Lee, we are guided through an eclectic library of songs from both his solo and Talking Heads catalogues. The stage is liberated from the burden of set design and rooted instruments. All of the musicians literally hold their own. They roam like water, but through choreography they are guided down the stream, into the river, eventually bursting the bank at the climatic ‘Road to Nowhere’.

Meticulousness is something people normally attribute to Byrne, his infamous planning and personal hold over the fantastic 1983 concert film Stop Making Sense being a particular example. Whilst every detail and dance is intricately thought out, planned, synchronised in American Utopia, everything seems slightly off kilter, off balance, a little, aptly may I add, ‘to the left’. It oozes an air of comfort and confidence from everyone on stage. I think Byrne is immensely proud of the relationships and environment he has created.

Lee and Byrne have similar qualities, especially in regards to subtext in their work. Byrne covers Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a thought-provoking and anger-inducing protest song which is a call to arms for the BLM movement, intercutting the names and pictures of victims of police brutality and racial injustice. Both of the artists’ worlds collide through a strong statement of solidarity.

Though it might be seen as a forced political ‘wokeness’, Byrne states that he knows how it might seem – “I’m an old, American white guy” – and the delivery doesn’t come across incredulous or insensitive. Instead, this section is a thought-provoking, respectful way of utilising a big performer’s platform, forcing their audience to become part of the production and making everyone aware.

That is also said about another consistent message of the show, ‘the right to register to vote’, to make changes to society. Again, this is not a pushy celebrity endorsement, tweeted out a day before an election, but a call to rally together, exercise your right and maybe even inspire people to go out of their way.

In these times, it’s so hard to indulge in the negativity in the world. By helping you forget where you are and embrace the chaos by falling right into it and simply existing, American Utopia forces you into a gentle reprieve. It’s joyous and hopeful and uplifting.

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American Utopia showed at The Showroom in October as part of the BFI London Film Festival programme. It is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 11 January 2021.

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