Of all the films to speak most into the apocalyptic hellscape that is the year 2020, I did not expect it to be the concert film of the Broadway show David Byrne’s American Utopia. A unique collaboration between the Talking Heads’ founding member David Byrne, and renowned director Spike Lee, this concert-Broadway show-film hybrid is a completely unique and a totally euphoric experience.
The show, which encompasses a modified version of the David Byrne album American Utopia alongside several Talking Heads hits, premiered at the Hudson Theatre in New York in October 2019 and closed in February 2020, just as the world went into meltdown. The show, like so many others, has subsequently been affected by the pandemic, with its originally slated September return now delayed indefinitely.
Earlier this year, the wonders of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton arrived on Disney+, signalling perhaps that the previously exclusive world of Broadway would now be more accessible. If there is one good to come out of this year, then that is certainly one of them. Even the film festivals, such as the BFI London Film Festival where American Utopia is screening, are more accessible than ever with the vast majority of screenings available online, and a limited number of cinema screenings being UK wide as opposed to the usually capital-centric events.
With its strong messages of unity, and the euphoria experienced through human connections and experiences, American Utopia has arrived at exactly the right time and place, and this makes for a very special experience indeed. With this film and Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee in 2020 alone has brought us two films which speak very powerfully and intrinsically to the times we are living in.
The cast is absolutely sensational, and so many cultures and countries are proudly represented. Dressed deliberately in the same grey suits, and at times moving so fluidly together, you could swear they were a singular unit, there is a tangible sense of togetherness. The show may have David Byrne’s name up in lights, but each cast member has a moment and no one fades into the background. It sounds cliche to say, but it is also evident that each member of the cast is having an absolute blast, and that infectious energy translates into the exuberant audience in the Hudson, and to us watching at home or in cinemas.
Spike’s dynamic direction, coupled with the masterful camerawork of Ellen Kuras, capture this feeling of oneness and unity expertly. Shooting a theatrical show in a way that feels cinematic, and pulling it off, isn’t easy but somehow this film makes it look effortless. Throughout, the camera moves between the performers, allowing us to feel not just that we are watching, but that we are part of the experience too. The staging and production design may appear simple on the surface, however there is incredible beauty in this simplicity, and with the camera moving across every inch of the stage, we are able to fully appreciate every single moment.
Whether you’re coming into this film as a diehard Byrne/Talking Heads fan, or a complete novice, you are guaranteed to find something to enjoy here. The show’s entire ethos is to be inclusive and welcoming, and any prior feelings that you may find the show alienating are immediately dissipated. The collective rapture of well-known hits such as ‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Burning Down the House’ and ‘Road to Nowhere’ is enough to bring even the complete sceptics around.
Aside from the music, the themes and ideas explored throughout are sure to ignite something within you. It talks briefly about the importance of voting, and there is a particularly powerful moment that occurs in the form of the Janelle Monae cover ‘Hell You Talmbout’. In this potent protest song, the names of Black men and women who lost their lives as a result of encounters with law enforcement, or because of racial violence, are listed and repeated alongside a familiar mantra. The rallying cry of ‘say their names’ has been seen throughout the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in recent months, and for many years prior to this has been used as a reminder that those lost are not just statistics and numbers, but real people with families and lives that were snatched away from them before their time. This moment is undoubtedly the most emotional moment of the film, and it is brought crushingly up to date with the inclusions of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
Equal parts social commentary, protest, and a celebration of unity, the film also serves as a celebration of musicals, stage shows, and live music. The arts is perhaps one of the industries taking the biggest hits at the moment, so being able to experience something such as this, serves as a timely reminder for why they are so vital. Whilst it is undoubtedly a good thing that the audience for theatre can be widened through films such as this and the aforementioned Hamilton, it is not a replacement for the thing itself, and the feeling you may be left with after watching American Utopia is that you’ll wish you could see it live!
This exceptional film however is the next best thing to physically being there, and through the unique lens of Spike Lee, we are able to experience viewpoints, shots, and moments that you would never get to see if you were in the audience. The songs are timeless, the themes are more relevant now than ever, and the experience is unlike anything else out there; simply spectacular.
American Utopia is available on HBO Max from October 17 2020.