Barefoot on Broadway
David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020): 8 out of 10: Singer/songwriter David Byrne and director Spike Lee try an impossible task. Make a concert film as good as the late Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. Do they succeed? Almost.
The Good: We have all been there. You have tickets to that Rush or a Rolling Stones concert and you sat through the opening acts (Get off the stage, Primus) and finally the band arrives… and for the first hour they play songs of the new album. The crowd is restless; you are restless, and the band is oblivious. Finally, a song you came to the concert to hear is teased an hour and a half in.
American Utopia does not start with the Talking Heads songs but newer songs from David Byrne’s solo career. Here is the rub. They’re really good. So good by the time the old chestnuts from the Talking Heads are dragged out I was actually a touch disappointed. I wanted to hear more of the new stuff.
This is a Broadway show. The staging is spartan. The band is all wireless, carrying their instruments on their back, not unlike a High School marching band. Everyone is dressed in the exact same grey suits. No one wears shoes. (The effect is a bit as if you were watching a concert from the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, though of course they all had Nikes). David talks to the audience. He promotes immigration being an immigrant himself; He promotes voting in local elections; David holds a plastic brain; he comes across as a particularly delightful dinner guest who may be on the spectrum.
David starts the concert by thanking the audience. “Thank you for leaving your homes,” he states in a phrase that was meaningless in 2019 but heartbreaking in 2020. The concert is clearly from another time where we had concerts. When we had Broadway.
Director Spike Lee does brilliant work here. He wisely doesn’t try to copy Jonathan Demme’s perfection in Stop Making Sense. He takes his own approach, and it works extremely well indeed. Lee’s camera is invisible and yet everywhere. He is with the audience in the cheap seats when a hit is played singing along with the crowd; Lee shoots Busby Berkeley style to show the choreography of a dance number. He is both up close and personal and flittering around, focusing on different band members as they come into view.
Everything Lee does is seemless. This takes a lot more work and talent than is apparent. He lets the show do the talking while making sure we always have the best seat in the house.
The Bad: David Byrne has always walked the walk. Despite the Talking Heads being a very white, very middle class band, their concerts featured talented musicians of color. In Stop Making Sense it just is. They hired the best people they could find to go on tour with. If their guitarist or drummer or back-up singers were people of color or some guy dressed like Andrew McCarthy at the county club, it didn’t seem to be relevant. It was the music that mattered.
American Utopia seems more performative. Great care seemingly is made to surround David with minorities and people with different lifestyle choices than his own. They are all excellent, so this is not a criticism of the individual choices. It is just that the line-up gives a Captain Planet and the Planeteers vibe. I am honestly surprised looking back that there wasn’t someone in a wheelchair.
Then in the middle of the concert they stop to take a knee and up flashes a picture of Colin Kaepernick which seems out of date for 2019, and in 2020 it took me a minute to remember who he was. (2020 has been a very very long year). It is a little jarring. And not in the good “wake up the unwoken” jarring kind of way. More in a this doesn’t really fit the rest of the concert kind of way. It simply isn’t organic and seems out of place.
David is more than capable of being organic and talking about different life experiences. He tells the tale of how he gave permission for the Detroit School of Arts vocal Jazz Ensamble to sing his song “Everybody’s Coming to My House”. “When I saw what the DSA students did with my song, it completely changed the way I thought of it. In fact, it changed the meaning of the song—I realized it was about inclusion, welcoming, and not being alone. It’s a more generous interpretation of the song than what I do with my voice,” Byrne said of the video in a statement. “We ARE all in the same house—if we want to be. Just goes to show how a song can change (radically!) depending on who is singing it.”
This is a lot more effective and moving then checking a box and taking a knee (Or David and company singing a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” and singing it rather poorly there by proving his own point that a song can change radially depending on who is singing it.)
In Conclusion: Like any concert film, it helps if you like the music. I like the music. A lot more than I thought I would. You may not want David Byrne as a husband, roommate or bandmate if reports from the field are to be believed. But he gives a fantastic concert and would make a delightful dinner guest. He is always welcome to come to my house. I will make some haggis.