David Byrne’s American Utopia perfectly encapsulates its creator’s quirky personality and artistic philosophy. Through his word salad lyrics and rambling monologues (which evoke his character’s bewilderingly meandering narration in True Stories), the former Talking Heads frontman celebrates the beauty of the mundane, champions the weird and unusual, and discovers profound meaning in the absurd and nonsensical. And don’t even get me started on his delightfully contradictory approach to blocking, choreography, and production design, which are simultaneously elaborate and minimalistic, symmetrical and asymmetrical, chaotic... and yet still governed by a strange internal logic. As in Stop Making Sense, for example, Byrne begins the concert alone; gradually, however, he is joined onstage by an increasing number of fellow musicians, singers, and dancers, lending the piece a clear “narrative arc.”
American Utopia is about far more than just funk rock and Dadaist poetry, though; as the show progresses, it evolves to incorporate Byrne’s political ideology. The film’s latter half represents a desperate call to action, challenging the audience to promote empathy and compassion despite the current climate of apathy and hostility that has engulfed the nation.
In Spike Lee, Byrne has found the ideal cinematic collaborator; the director’s bold visual style—particularly the soaring crane shots and Berkeley-esque overhead angles, which are (paradoxically) both immersive and disorienting—flawlessly complements the frenetic energy of the performances. Of course, Lee (like Jonathan Demme before him) also instinctively knows when it’s better to simply stand back and allow the songs—which include such classics as “Burning Down the House”, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, and “Once in a Lifetime”—to speak for themselves.
The result is a movie that is every bit as versatile and diverse as the artists and craftsmen that brought it to the screen. Whether you’re a lifelong David Byrne fan, a devoted cinephile, a social justice activist, or a complete neophyte on all counts, American Utopia is an unforgettable experience.