There was no way that former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, when crafting his hit Broadway theatrical concert American Utopia, could have envisioned that a pandemic and a racial reckoning would force society to re-evaluate our connections to one another. He simply knew that America was in drastic need of change. People were becoming more and more estranged from each other. Their views were being shaped by the small group of like-minded individuals in their orbit, rather than learning from those who had different thoughts and experiences from them.
Byrne’s pleas for America to embark on a necessary journey of change, one that embraces broader connections, is brilliantly captured in Spike Lee’s latest joint David Byrne’s American Utopia. Utilizing Byrne’s minimalist staging to maximum effect, Lee constructs a film that is as visually striking and infectious as the music itself. Lee’s lens pays great attention to every little detail. He ensures that everything from the way Byrne and his two backup singers/dancers raise their heels in unison at the end of one song to the intricate choreography featured in songs such as “I Dance Like This” is noted by the viewer. This detailed focus forces one to not only have a deeper connection with Byrne and his band, but also the various messages within the performance.
While some of these messages are blunt, such as when he takes a moment to highlight the importance of voting, Byrne allows his songs and brief interludes to provide the biggest impact. In one memorable moment, when performing the song “Everybody’s Coming to My House”, a tune that can be interpreted as being about the irrational fear of immigration or a celebration embracing diversity, Byrne reminds the audience that immigrants are a vital part of America’s success. Another introspective moment finds Byrne reflecting on the role television has played in creating a false view of America, one that has only fostered further disconnected amongst people.
Byrne himself is not above criticism either. He openly acknowledges his stubbornness at times and the personal work that he also needs to do. The latter of which really hits home when he touches on racial inequality and police brutality. Performing a cover of Janelle Monáe’s blistering “Hell You Talmbout”, Lee incorporates giant portraits of individuals ranging from Eric Garner to Sandra Bland to Emmett Till as Byrne and band rile the audience up with “say his name” and “say her name” chants. The song ends with images of Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd before the screen fills with the names of victims of racially fueled violence.
Using art to ease viewers into difficult and introspective conversations about how to change America for the better, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a mesmerizing work. One does not need to be well-versed in Byrne’s catalogue, I only knew two songs prior to viewing, to enjoy this film. Lee and Byrne show that music is a language that is accessible to all. It is an essential tool for fostering connection even in the most troubling times.