Thursday 15 October 2020

DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA - London Film Festival 2020

Performed at Broadway's Hudson Theatre and based on his most recent studio album (with the inclusion of many of his classic hits), David Byrne's American Utopia sees him team up with director Spike Lee to capture the performance art aspect of the live show on film.

It's impossible to begin any discussion of concert films without including 1984's Jonathan Demme directed Stop Making Sense, the film that caught Talking Heads, arguably in their prime, and introduced the world to David Byrne's infamous large suit. That film opened on David Byrne alone on stage, gradually bringing out the rest of his bandmates to create an orchestra of sound and vision, and he repeats the trick here to great effect. Seated, barefoot, wearing an grey suit so unremarkable it must be remarked upon, and holding a prop brain, he delivers an elegy that will run throughout the show, before he's joined onstage by back-up vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. They dance, sing and emote their way through the rest of the show, as do the other vocalists and musicians, all carrying their instruments to allow free movement on the stage. Actually, unlike the freewheeling performance of Stop Making Sense, the term "free movement" is a misnomer here, as there isn't a single moment in American Utopia that doesn't seem like a perfectly choreographed piece of visual artistry, blend together dance and music. There's not a single (bare) footstep out of place.

This is a show that requires its musicians to play an active part in the visual tapestry of the performances, moving them around the limited space the square stage affords them, with the modern lighting techniques bouncing bright white lights off their grey suits to illuminate them or change the shape of the performance area as it wishes. The choreography looks like it would challenge the most seasoned of dancers, but the band look like their having a great time throughout, with Byrne eager to show the respect he has for them in a roll call that gives each a moment to show their musical skills. Cliched, perhaps, but there's a party atmosphere that regularly has the audience up and dancing.

The widest appeal of this will of course be to existing David Byrne and Talking Heads fans, although it's a show that will surely win over many more to the fold. Byrne punctuates the musical performances with a regular address to the audience, and it's here where the show takes on a most surprising tilt, as Byrne gets political to talk to his assembled fans (and clearly, us) about the importance of voter registration and turn-out, using the in-theatre lighting to illustrate his points. The live show originally ran up until February 2020, and was set to return before Covid-19 shut down Broadway, but it's remarkably topical in a way Byrne and director could not have foreseen, with one of the highlights of the show arriving in the band's performance of Janelle Monae's protest song, Hell You Talmbout. Here, for the first time, the linear reality of the show is broken to include photos of the men and women named in the song who have died because of police brutality, with newly added tributes to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor giving the song's performance a unique timeliness, and the perfect meeting of David Byrne and Spike Lee's principles. There's not much opportunity for Lee to add his directorial flair, with him and his cinematographer and regular collaborator Ellen Kuras confined by the physical boundaries that come with the recording a concert - but here it's unmistakably the work of Spike Lee.

American Utopia is a wonder to watch, cinematic by virtue of being utterly impossible to take your eyes off, and featuring plenty of David Byrne's past hits that will have you as engrossed as the live audience clearly were. Byrne's vocals and wealth of visual creativity show he's still a force to be reckoned with, and with the added relevance to the times we're living in, this beautiful, vibrant companion to Stop Making Sense is unexpectedly vital viewing.



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