David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

It’s coming up to the end of the year, which means that desperate period when I try to catch up with the best films I haven’t yet seen. My own lack of home internet at the moment and the vagaries of global distribution, especially this year, mean that I probably won’t be able to see some of people’s favourites, and it will presumably be yet another year end that passes without me having seen the latest by Kelly Reichardt. Anyway, there are a few films from 2020, or new to me this year, which I’ve seen and haven’t yet reviewed, so I’m using this week between Christmas and NY to post them up, starting with a concert film by David Byrne, whose Talking Head doc Stop Making Sense is a touchstone of the genre (and whose 1994 concert film Between the Teeth is also great, and never really gets mentioned, though it doesn’t seem to be easily available anywhere).


A couple of years ago I saw Byrne on this tour, more or less on a whim — and I’m glad I did — but I feel like I’m getting a lot more from this film document (not least because being up in the rafters at London’s least atmospheric gig venue is hardly the best way to experience Byrne’s vision or his music). Instead director Spike Lee has his cameras at a rather more intimate theatre venue in New York City, and we even see the stage team riding around Manhattan on bicycles over the end credits (which in some ways might even be my favourite bit, as it’s accompanied by an upbeat cover that Byrne speaks about in a memorable bit of his stage repartee). Still there’s clearly an aesthetic at work here and even a bit of a narrative, as Byrne leads us through his songs, starting small and talking about being disconnected from people through to a huge ensemble on stage pleading with people to get involved and be part of a community, performed by musicians wearing matching grey suits (and their instruments) on a minimal set where it’s the human interactions and movements that are the key. It’s all a little bit heartwarming, and the stylish filming belies the rather monochrome costuming.

David Byrne's American Utopia film posterCREDITS
Director Spike Lee; Writer David Byrne; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 27 November 2020.

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