David Byrne invokes visions of an ‘American Utopia’ in his new concert film

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By Tilly Long, Third Year, English

In a new era of COVID-induced restrictions and increasing stipulations, a jubilated, singing crowd may sound hard pressed to come by. But thanks to David Byrne’s latest venture, a live recording of his Broadway show American Utopia, the 2020 London Film Festival was able to culminate in an awe-inspiring musical.

Full suits and bare feet on stage | Courtesy of IMDb

Well known for working in an abundance of mediums including but not limited to opera, photography and fiction, Byrne is no stranger to innovation. Front-man of Talking Heads, a band of former art students who released their debut album amidst the New York punk scene of the 1970s, his name quickly became synonymous with pioneering the new wave genre.

Arguably one of the best concert films ever made, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984) documented the band’s tour of their 1983 album “Speaking in Tongues”, rife with impossible energy and hilariously mechanical dance moves. Byrne’s iconic, enormous grey suit adeptly encapsulated the playful nature of the movie; you can see why cinema goers of the time were reportedly dancing in the seat aisles.

Courtesy of IMDb

In the same joyous fashion as this, Byrne’s new concert film combines just the right amount of wistful nostalgia with cultural relevance. The stripped back staging reflects these opposing themes. It's grey and bare, just like the musicians’ bare feet and grey suits, but the vitality is nonetheless palpable. Everyone is untethered from their instruments, granting them unlimited dancing space.

A fundamental difference between Stop Making Sense and American Utopia seems abundantly clear from the first song, which sees Byrne alone on stage tracing a plastic brain, singing “here is an area that needs attention.” Whilst he may not have set out to produce an inherently political show, this time round feels far more like a performance with an intended message.

In between songs he often muses on the importance of voting, consistently emphasising the horrifying context of 2020 America

What makes this essential viewing is the cathartic celebration created by Byrne, which we are all encouraged to partake in. When he talks to his live theatre audience about hope, people in my cinema screen cheer along, and when he plays the most famous tracks from ‘Stop Making Sense’, I notice everyone around me is singing and bouncing their knees in unison.

Hearing new renditions of older songs also highlights the relevancy of their lyrics now more than ever before, particularly the connotations behind 'I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong / Don't Worry About the Government’ and ‘Burning Down the House’.

David Byrne in American Utopia (2020) | Courtesy of IMDb

Alongside those classics come new songs, the most emotive of which being a cover version of Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout.’ The lyrics chant the names of African Americans who have been killed as a result of police brutality, before asking us, “won’t you say their name?” Here the presence of acclaimed director Spike Lee becomes immediately apparent; he includes images of the families of the victims holding up photographs of their lost loved ones.

The Broadway show closed on February 16, 2020, three months before George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. And while we’ve all seen the image of Floyd go globally viral, there is something immensely powerful about it appearing on a huge cinema screen.

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David Byrne’s American Utopia was also the favourite of several of our London Film Festival writers at the Epigram this season, who had this to say about it:

Julius De La Rama, Third Year, Film & Television

American Utopia exists alongside Demme’s masterwork as one of the most essential films of the decade so far. A work of seemingly limitless energy that has a genuine sense of excitement that it even exists.

Jake Kuhn, Third Year, Film & Television

In American Utopia, David Byrne laments the differences between his version of Everybody’s Coming to My House and a high school choir’s version. He says of his; “the singer sounds like he doesn’t know how to feel about ‘everybody coming to [his] house’… you can sense that he’s thinking “when are they gonna leave?” Yet, in the latter’s: “they didn’t change a single lyric, they didn’t change the melody, yet their version seems to be about welcoming, inviting everybody over, inclusion.”

The magic of American Utopia is that it re-contextualises Byrne’s music to be a contemporary, relevant and thought-provoking film about how best we move forward and learn to love one another. What could be better?

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