I remember when David Byrne’s American Utopia tour came to Kansas City, Mo., in the summer of 2018. I desperately wanted to go, but tickets were astoundingly expensive (the price was hundreds of dollars for one ticket), and I was planning on catching his set at Austin City Limits that October. So, I skipped Byrne’s Kansas City stop in the hopes that I would see his Austin set. Unfortunately, our flight landed minutes before he went on-stage. To say that I’m still upset about it would be a dramatic understatement.
This regret was only compounded when I finished watching David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO just an hour ago. Given the state of live music in 2020 and likely 2021, I needed some type of live-music simulation in my life. Sure, watching a concert documentary isn’t quite the same as actually being there, but wow did I need this film. It’s easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and David Byrne and Spike Lee make for an impressive combination.
Byrne’s performance is invariably fun to watch, such as the way he trips across the stage during “Once in a Lifetime” or the silent-dancing segment of “I Dance Like This.” You can tell how much fun Byrne and his band are having here, even aside from the backstage credits where his band members express their satisfaction with the show. During one particular moment, the Talking Heads frontman says that he wanted the show to be completely devoid of cables and sound equipment, at least on the actual stage. He wanted to show to be only “us and you.” With the liberty to roam the stage wherever they please, Byrne and his band pull off some marching-band-esque formations, including a perfect X shape, which Spike Lee captures from a bird’s-eye view.
Speaking of Lee, his camerawork is impeccable, showcasing the performance from nearly every angle fathomable. He films from the balconies, the front row, backstage, in the catwalks, and even on the stage itself. His edits during Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” are heart-wrenching. When Byrne and his band chant the names of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, and many other Black people killed by the police, Lee shows the person’s family holding a photograph of them. American Utopia was filmed in February, before Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were killed, but each of them has their photograph shown at the end of the song, alongside the names of countless others.
Bryne throws some other covers into the setlist, too. There’s Brighton Port Authority’s “Toe Jam” and “I Should Watch TV,” which Bryne co-wrote with St. Vincent for their 2012 collaborative album, Love This Giant. Of course, there’s an abundance of Talking Heads material that spans the quartet’s career from their 1977 debut to 1988’s Naked. Their fifth album, Speaking in Tongues, ends up receiving the most love, with three of its songs making their way into the setlist (“Slippery People,” “Burning Down the House,” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”).
side note: those parentheses were a headache.
This reminds me of the first true post I wrote for this newsletter. It was about Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, and I said that I would write about more movies in the future. Well, this is the first movie I’ve written about since then. I feel like I haven’t seen many movies that have released this year aside from a modest handful, but if it matters, David Byrne’s American Utopia cracks my personal top-five-films-of-2020 list. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did, or maybe you’ve seen it already considering I’m nearly two months late to this party.