American Utopia review – David Byrne and Spike Lee burn down the house

This ambitious concert film mixes politics, Talking Heads hits and Lee’s inimitable style to winning effect

Director Spike Lee and musician David Byrne have created a crowd-pleaser with this spry concert film of Byrne’s 2018 tour turned Broadway performance. Nearly half the setlist comprises hits made famous by Talking Heads – and who wouldn’t find their spirits buoyed by footage of Byrne and co careening through the crowd during a sweaty and exuberant performance of Road to Nowhere, GoPro cameras trailing them? Byrne and his band, who wear their instruments strapped to their bodies, dance barefoot in starched, steel-grey suits across a stage designed to look like a chainmail cube.

This is a Spike Lee Joint and so Lee shoots Byrne from above so the viewer can better appreciate the clarity of the staging, from the wings to give a sense of the choreography and among the performers to capture their energy. There aren’t any isolated moments as cinematic as Byrne’s tender lamp dance in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, but the director’s playfulness is felt. The show is interspersed with Byrne’s earnest reflections on low voter turnout and Black Lives Matter. It’s ambiguous whether Lee’s presence is supposed to legitimise or complicate any white guilt Byrne might feel. “We all need to change. I also need to change,” he says, introducing his cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest song Hell You Talmbout. Still, it’s a moving and reverent scene, with Lee inserting images of black Americans who have died at the hands of the police.

Watch a trailer for American Utopia


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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