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LFF 2020 Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia – “The performances spark feelings of universal euphoria”

Three decades on from Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making SenseSpike Lee captures every beat of the joy, resistance, and international collaboration at the heart of David Byrne’s American Utopia. It’s a show that toured across the US and UK in 2018 – and as someone lucky enough to see it in London, that same spark of excitement is very much alive in this film, shot at an encore performance in NYC’s Hudson Theatre, in late 2019.

There’s no big suit this time. Byrne and his ensemble of musicians, singers, and dancers stand on a minimal stage, free of cables (and shoes or socks) all dressed in sharp, grey suits. It makes for a more egalitarian type of show. With wireless instruments being carried or strapped to the musicians – movement is fluid, devoid of usual stadium rock posturing or band leader hierarchy.

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Spike Lee mostly keeps the cameras focused on what’s happening on stage – moving to the rhythm and pace of the performance, cutting in close on individual players that bring the American Utopia album to life visually, as well as sonically. There are a few dizzying aerial shots to boot, and the cinematography does justice to lighting designer Rob Sinclair’s stylish shadows and spotlights. The show also highlights Annie B. Parson’s seamless choreography. And, this is very much a show, not a gig, with David Byrne pausing for pertinent mid-song tells.

The American Utopia show connects past and present with a set mixing the new album with some stone-cold Talking Heads classics too with Don’t Worry About The Government kicking things off early. Connection is the show’s central theme and driver of many of Byrne and Lee’s artistic choices here. David Byrne’s idiosyncratic between-song reflections include the way neural connections decline as we age, to engaging the US electorate, and finding human connection wherever we find ourselves. “Meeting people, that’s the best ” Byrne quips, before launching into This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).

There are serious notes in the music and commentary reflecting themes in Lee and Byrne’s work far beyond the walls of this concert hall – particularly a rousing cover of Jonelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout, intercut with photos of the murdered black people honoured in the song. But, in art, as in life, defiance, resilience, happiness are powerful forces too. It’s an incredibly joyful and celebratory performance overall, Burning Down The House and Blind are absolutely massive.

“We have people from many parts of the world … Brazil, France, Columbia. Most of us are immigrants, and we couldn’t do it without them”. David Byrne says of the performers, before launching one of the album’s biggest singles Everybody’s Coming To My House. The best concert films make you want to push back the furniture and turn your living into a dancefloor. This is one such film. The performances of David Byrne’s American Utopia spark feelings of universal euphoria. Feelings to savour until it’s safe for us to dance and sing together again.

David Byrne’s American Utopia screened as part of LFF2020 and is on general release in the UK now.

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