later, in American Utopia, Byrne sits at a grey table on a grey Broadway
stage. Even his hair, inevitably, is a wavy shade of grey. The only colour emanates
from the brain on the table. He bursts into Here, a song about connection
and – interpretively – looking after yourself. The borders around the stage
ascend, surrounding him in vertical chains.
is no stranger to ennui, alienation and a general dissatisfaction with
existence. Coming from the Gordon Gecko era of the 80s, which preached a capitalistic, 'greed is good'
philosophy, Talking Heads reflected those anxieties of
disenchantment. But Stop Making Sense was never explicitly political, only
symbolically, whereas American Utopia has no choice.
With 11 other
band members, who carry their instruments on their chests to allow freedom of
movement, Byrne addresses the audience between songs. He recounts pithy anecdotes from his life, discusses the horrors
of meeting people, and relays facts about babies’ brains having more neural
connections than adults.
it’s Byrne’s political asides that reach in close. These moments wield a deeper visual
significance, unsurprising given that Spike Lee directs this film of the show. Byrne spends an
entire segment soliloquising the Vote, in which a portion of the audience is
illuminated to show the percentage of people who actually voted in 2016. This
is something you’d expect more from someone like Michael Moore than an 80s pop
singer, but its sincerity weaves beautifully with Byrne’s music.
David Byrne and Spike Lee. Photo: image.net
It could’ve been an unwise move for a 67-year-old white man to sing Janelle
Monáe’s protest song Hell You Talmbout (Byrne says as much), but the political
poignance shakes you, staggers you. This is where Lee’s signature style seeps
in the most. Where the song shouts the names of murdered people of colour, Lee
cuts to dolly shots pressing into blown-up pictures of the deceased. It’s a
moving indictment of the current system.
Byrne plays most of the classics, with the intriguing exception of Psycho Killer. It was probably an appropriate exclusion since, despite the dystopian stage, the show gears toward a more hopeful message (even Road to Nowhere is bleakly optimistic). The electric
choreography and the exceptional lighting cues throw you into a wondrously strobic experience, jolting new life into these excellent songs.
of the more baffling asides is a mini-lecture on the 1930s and the beginnings
of Surrealism. Byrne mentions the Nazis, but doesn’t explicitly connect that period to our own. The suggestion is enough. Even with the TED-like spotlight,
he never tells you what to think – he allows you to form those connections
yourself. He talks about how nonsense was used ‘to make sense of a world that
didn’t make sense’. He tries to achieve that with American Utopia, but it’s more
than mere nonsense. It's a musical triumph.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2020. David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on digital download from 14 December and DVD on 11 January 2021
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