The David Byrne/Spike Lee film “American Utopia” (HBO) offers a brilliant, highly caffeinated jolt of hope when we really need one.
Lee mostly gets it right visually; and Byrne has changed up the production only slightly since its Palace Theatre presentation in September 2018 awed me with its choreographed and detailed, perfectionist precision, righteous polemical power and joyous musical punch.
However, the world has become distinctly more dire since then, so Byrne’s message has grown more necessary and vital. Just as sound, lyrics aside, Byrne and his constantly moving 11-piece band offer compelling arguments for immigrant assimilation, for vital multiculturalism, the defeat of racism and exploitation and the focused power of close cooperation.
It’s a band of moving parts, barefoot members in matching gray suits, as if the Big Suit Byrne wears in “Stop Making Sense” has diffused into a hive-mind organism that breathes and moves as one.
Layer on lyrics of strong, if sometimes oblique, persuasion, and the thing packs an irresistible message.
To explain how sweet-hard this hit me, let me cite the home-video back-story at our place that perfectly prepared me for it.
First came an Aaron Sorkin double-header:
The reconstituted cast of “The West Wing” (NBC 1999-2006) performs on a nearly bare stage the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode. It shows a frightening collision between the crucial necessity of intelligent governance (imagine!) and the possibilities for further disaster or positive change that electoral politics present in our own terrifying fork-in-the-road time. This reunion event benefited “When We All Vote” and urged that we do.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” recalls events in an America as divided as now. Though things seemed somehow less frightening then – a time of federal dirty tricks against progressives – its echoes in our own time feel heartbreaking.
Similarly, the non-Sorkin “A Family Thing” (scripted in part by Billy Bob Thornton) argues for racial harmony across agonizing, generations-deep hard secrets of kinship and acceptance.
Looking back further, and more directly at the stage, I recalled the intelligence and buzz of Talking Heads shows at UAlbany’s Page Hall, Albany’s Palace Theatre and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where Byrne also led his horn-powered 10 Car Pile-Up; then Byrne band shows at The Egg. After the SPAC Big Suit show, I got to speak with Byrne backstage where he answered every question I asked, in paragraphs, but with an at first disconcerting delay.. He paused so long that I thought at first he hadn’t heard me or had simply spaced out. No, this was a very deliberate thoughtfulness that felt, finally, like the deepest sort of courtesy.
So, I was really ready for the David and Spike show to lift me up.
Like Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” film of the Big Suit tour (whose fantastic SPAC show was delayed by a would-be jumper on the Dolly Parton Northway bridge over the Mohawk) the new “American Utopia” production gangs up gradually on the viewer/listener.
The band grows from stark, cryptic, quiet small-scale musings. Byrne sits alone at a table and speaks, then rises to speak some more. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, he muses on a pink model of a brain, as music seeps into the shimmery silver three-walled space around him. It’s serene as a library at first, then alive with sound and motion, evolving in shrewdly paced stages. Singers and players congregate around him, always in motion since their instruments – the drum set is split among five mobile percussionists – connect wirelessly to unseen amps. The effect is of fluid grace, a moving gang of growing sound. Early on, Lee places the camera overhead in the lighting grid as bodies below go all geometric in an ever-shifting human landscape and the music itself swells. Later, Byrne remarks to both crowd and camera that looking at humans is more interesting than looking at a bag of potato chips or, by extension, any product.
David Byrne, and brain, and the first inklings of the band growing behind him at Albany’s Palace Theatre in September 2018. Michael Hochanadel photo
Tunes jukebox together from both the newish, fairly straight-ahead rock album that gives the production its name and from the electric funk of the augmented mid-80s Big Suit era Talking Heads. When a song from this bygone, boomer-fond era emerges, the crowd goes happily bonkers.
In a show with a previous band at The Egg the evening after Barack Obama was elected president, Byrne told us, “Now everything changes.” More would and should have changed; but Byrne’s current hope for change in “American Utopia” is hard-won, but real – and not naive at all. It is comprehensive and quietly fierce. (Check out his Reasons to be Cheerful: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/.)
In its honed confidence, its slick packaging, its nonstop action, the music packs unarguable urgency, culminating in Janelle Monae’s angry-compassionate “Hell You Talmbout” (Byrne asked her permission) that climaxes in a litany of mourning slain Black people. This perfectly follows “Burning Down the House,” thematically and musically. After each victim’s face appears projected behind the band, Byrne and band command “Say his (or her) name!”
Yes, say their names. And hail the names of David Byrne and Spike Lee for expressing the vivid mixture of daily dismay and battered hope that anyone with a functioning brain and moral sense must feel in these troubled and troubling days.
Thanks, gentlemen; and the men and women you assembled on the stage to dazzle us on our screens.