by Joshua Ray on Oct 23, 2020

During their imperial period – roughly 1977-86 – the Talking Heads were the ultimate art-rock representatives to the mainstream. Fronted by David Byrne, who appeared like some unassuming grad-student preppy but performed with the nervous energy of someone pushed to brink of speed-fueled mania, the NYC post-punk outfit with a political bent eventually began incorporating traditional sounds from around the globe into more explicitly socially aware pop music. The music video for their 1981 existential earworm “Once in a Lifetime” became a staple on early MTV, and the song itself proved a prescient and subversive anthem about the American malaise that birthed thousands of Gordon Geckos in the 1980s.

The band officially broke up in 1991, but Byrne continued growing into an elder statesman of alternative pop music – his iconic oversized suit now as perfectly tailored as his carefully coiffed white hair. Although his solo output never quite reached the commercial or critical peaks of the band’s, Byrne and the Talking Heads’ fingerprints are all over indie music since, including contemporary mainstream/underground straddlers Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, and St. Vincent (with whom Byrne worked on Love This Giant).

The tour supporting the sexagenarian’s 2018 album American Utopia was an unqualified global hit, and a reconfiguration of that show made it to the Great White Way, reaping success and acclaim. Now, that production is a Spike Lee joint for the big screen (at least at some drive-in accommodations for festivals like the New York Film Festival) and the small (available to stream now on HBOMax). David Byrne’s American Utopia is an exuberant celebration of Byrne’s catalog and an intricately staged essay about the State of Things, containing an unblinking sincerity in theme and performance that provoke bristling in some viewers. Others may find themselves possessed to leap to their feet in their living rooms.

Like Lee’s previous stage adaptation Passing Strange (2009), the “permanent record” of the Broadway musical of the same name, the director goes beyond simply capturing Byrne and his merry band of dancers and musicians, mining the stage space for cinematic experience. Lee and his cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, position their cameras within, around, and above the set – three walls of sparkling beaded curtains that allow for the performers to dip in and out of view when necessary. Other than the occasional projected image above it, that’s all there is to see here, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of visual pleasures. Byrne and co. – wearing the exact same gray suits sans shoes – are nearly in constant motion with the kind of robotic pose-pulling familiar to anyone who's seen a live performance by the Talking Heads or its frontman.

When they do stand still, it’s so that Byrne can better unify his song sequencing via waxing poetic. For the Fear of Music track “I Zimbra,” he elucidates the song’s Dadaist origins while pointing to his own personal philosophies since the song’s release. Elsewhere, less esoteric statements are made – including a request to register to vote in the lobby – and although the musician is an engaging speaker, he’s better equipped with his uncannily unchanged-by-time singing voice.

During Love This Giant’s "I Should Watch TV," an image of Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the U.S. national anthem is projected and those on stage follow suit. To generalize, anyone coming to American Utopia is likely already left-leaning, but the moment smacks of liberal pandering no matter how genuine the move may be. The gut-punch of his cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” – the percussive protest anthem that demands to “say [the] name” of several of the Black victims of unending police brutality in the States – fairs better in support of the cause, with Lee intercutting family members holding images of their dead loved ones.

On-the-nose polemics were never really a part of Talking Heads’ music or performances, and this is an advantage in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Heads concert doc to which David Byrne’s American Utopia has been inevitably compared. Arguably, the late director (who is given a thank-you credit here) set the bar for any captured performance with his film, a perfectly calibrated celebration of the band at its peak. Although it shares numbers with Sense – every hipster’s favorite love song, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” is featured in both films, in two wildly different performances – American Utopia is simply a different vision of the world through Byrne’s eyes. After all, these times are desperate for clarity, and David Byrne seems to be moving away from the earlier film’s plea and toward an appeal to start making sense.

Rating: B

David Byrne's American Utopia is now available to stream from HBO Max.