[TIFF 2020] DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA -- Another Mind-Blowing Concert Documentary on the Talking Heads Frontman
Review by Sean Boelman
Many consider the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense to be one of the greatest concert movies ever made, so David Byrne’s American Utopia, the recording of the frontman’s Broadway show, has an astronomically high bar to which it had to live up. And thanks to Byrne’s undeniable talent and energetic direction from master filmmaker Spike Lee, this is an experience that audiences won’t soon forget.
The film is a recording of the eponymous Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show inspired by his most recent album, featuring performances of his solo work and some of his band’s classics with twelve other gifted musicians. Talking Heads aficionados are in for a massive treat here, as it’s one of the most fittingly idiosyncratic concerts you have ever seen.
What is perhaps most impressive is that, even at the age of sixty-seven (he has turned sixty-eight since the time of filming), Byrne has still got it. His voice is still as magnificent as ever, and he runs and dances across the stage with just as much energy as he would have in his twenties.
Fans of the new wave sound will be delighted with these unique renditions of both some of the greatest hits of the eighties and some interesting new pieces that share a lot stylistically but are perhaps even more ambitious than his most famous songs. And Byrne is just as experimental as ever, including a wonderful sequence in which he and the other performers on stage deconstruct a song into its individual elements.
But those thinking that this is just going to be an hour and forty five minutes of Byrne performing his greatest hits are sorely mistaken. His lyrics are anything but shallow, and he weaves them together in a way to form a message encouraging viewers and the world to come together and love each other, as that is the only way to achieve the eponymous state of mind.
That said, Byrne also isn’t afraid to address some of the deeper issues in society. A brief tribute to Colin Kapernick and a plea to the audience from Byrne to participate in the election both show Byrne’s desire to make change. However, the most powerful moment in the movie, and the one with which Lee most exerts his iconic voice, is a stirring rendition of Janelle Monaé’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout”.
What really makes this film stand out, though, is that Spike Lee directs it in a way that is much more energetic and stylistic than is usual for concert documentaries. This isn’t just a camera crew pointing-and-shooting at the stage — although the way in which he captures the performance is very fluid — it’s a multimedia experience that feels like a companion piece, not a substitute to the live show.
David Byrne’s American Utopia is the concert documentary event of the year. The fact that Byrne got two of the greatest filmmakers of all time to collaborate with him is a feat in and of itself, but that they are two of the best music movies ever made is even more awe-inspiring.
David Byrne’s American Utopia debuts as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10. The festival runs September 10-19 and offers a blend of in-person and virtual (geoblocked to Canada) screenings.