David Byrne's American Utopia review – Spike Lee's thrilling treat for fans

A filmed version of the musician’s hit Broadway show plays like a vibrant greatest hits extravaganza that could win converts

Spike Lee has made a filmed record of David Byrne’s Broadway stage-show version of his solo album American Utopia, a live reimagining of the record in which a lavish selection of his classic tracks with Talking Heads is also performed. So many, in fact, that it almost feels like a greatest hits extravaganza. Psycho Killer is excluded, but there are plenty of absolute bangers from yesteryear, and from an early stage in the proceedings, you can see members of the Broadway audience in the front row standing up and rocking out: people who have perhaps grown old with the great man himself and allowed their own hair to become as snowy as his. (Byrne looks more like Jim Jarmusch with each passing year.)

Byrne affects a conventional grey suit on stage, and his backing band of singers and dancers wear the same thing, perhaps to create a cloning effect. Inevitably, it will remind Byrne fans of the “big suit” he wore for the Stop Making Sense concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme in 1984 and there are similarities, although this show, like the suit, is consciously a more scaled-down, intimate affair.

There is one overt eccentricity or informality: no shoes. (I found myself thinking of the lyric from Houses in Motion: “Wearing shoes without socks / In cold weather …” although it’s an inexact comparison.) Byrne and his band look as if the stage has somehow been accidentally flooded and they are making the best of it. But it’s amazing how quickly you accustom yourself to his quirks.

The choreography by Annie-B Parson is absolutely right for Byrne’s angular, noodling, wacky dance style, and his supporting cast rather cleverly project the air of people who are basically musicians called upon to perform a well-drilled dance routine, without any special pizzazz, but everything is brought off with perfect synchronicity and charm.

And the hits keep coming: Don’t Worry About the Government (a song about an old person that now has an added piquancy), This Must Be the Place, Once in a Lifetime, Glass, Concrete and Stone, I Zimbra, Born Under Punches and many more. In addition, Byrne is concerned that his music and this show is not just a matter of white people’s art-rock. There is a tribute to the NFL star and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, and Byrne also does a tremendous cover verson of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmabout, in which the singer demands the audience say the names of the black people who have been killed after a confrontation with the authorities.

Byrne maintains his even-tempered enigma: with his little headset-mic, he does short Ted-talk-type monologues between the tracks, and these are diverting enough but of course the music itself is what we’ve come for. Afterwards, Lee’s camera follows Byrne off the stage out into the wings and to the dressing room where he hugs and high-fives his colleagues – no star liggers backstage, though, sadly. And then we see him get on his bike and cycle home, exactly as Alan Bennett used to do after a hard night’s performing at the National Theatre in London. There is no moment where Byrne dramatically opens up, either on stage or off, but perhaps that’s not the point. It’s a treat for Byrne fans, and could well make converts.

  • David Byrne’s American Utopia screened at the Toronto film festival and is available in the UK on digital formats on 14 December and DVD on 11 January.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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