David Byrne’s American Utopia – Concert Film Review

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What I would do to be at a concert right now. To be crammed in a dark room with hundreds/ thousands of strangers all singing and thrashing our fists to some of our collective favorite songs. Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait a while before we can do it all again, however, thanks to Spike Lee and Talking Head’s David Byrne, we can experience an experimental kind of concert from the comfort of our own homes. David Byrne’s American Utopia is a concert film version of Byrne’s majorly successful Broadway performance of his 2018 solo album, American Utopia.

The film opens rather cinematically as Byrne sits at a table holding a human brain as he sings one of his new songs, Here. As the film opens, it is incredibly evident that an expert filmmaker such as Lee is at the helm as the lighting, camera angles and general choreography of musicians and props. For the first two or three songs, American Utopia is a visually stunning spectacle of light and choreography that you could easily argue is the peak of the film, however, much of what is to come is equally as enjoyable if not as visually impressive as this opening.

(David Byrne and director Spike Lee)

Much of this concert film finds David Byrne performing a variety of songs with his international band, whether they be his own solo songs, Talking Heads classics or cover versions, including an extraordinary rendition of Janelle Monae’s black lives matter anthem Hell You Talmbout. Byrne prides his show on it being wireless, thus allowing his band to move freely across the stage, injecting it with life that is certainly felt on the screen. Although lighting effects do take an unfortunate back seat after an incredible opening, the choreography is maintained throughout, making American Utopia feel like an international parade bursting with life on both the Broadway stage and your television.

This is a concert film, however it isn’t simply David Byrne and his band thrashing out 16-21 songs and leaving the stage. Byrne addresses the audience with some rather amusing and humbling anecdotes which, in my opinion, is perhaps the highlight of the film. Normally if I’m at a concert I loathe the moments where the front-man makes a speech about love and peace or whatever, however in American Utopia, David Byrne uses these moments to either provide insight into a song or send a poignant political message in a way that is respectful, humbling and endearing rather than self-indulgent and preachy. Not only that, but who knew David Byrne was such a funny guy?

(David Byrne in David Byrne’s American Utopia)

Overall, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a celebration of cultures and a nostalgic look at pre-COVID life. With a film-making legend at the helm and fronted by a funny and endearing musical icon, David Byrne’s American Utopia is more than just a concert recorded for film, but is instead a politically corrected call to make America great again.

David Byrne’s American Utopia was released on October 17th on HBO Max US and will be distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures with a date TBA.