David Byrne’s American Utopia is currently streaming on HBO Max.
By Palmer Rubin
One of my all-time favorite cinematic moments is the very beginning of 1984’s Stop Making Sense, the film that put Jonathan Demme into the stratosphere and is still considered by many to be the greatest concert film ever made. David Byrne, the lead singer of the Talking Heads, appears on stage in a gray suit far too big for him, with a tape recorder and a guitar. “I have a tape I’d like to play,” he says as he sets the tape recorder down and with guitar in hand, begins to pluck out a cover of his own “Psycho Killer.”
The rest of Stop Making Sense can’t keep up with that singular track because of how much enthusiasm and ferocity Byrne brought to the proceedings (that’s not to knock the other band members though), how the Talking Heads seemed like the only band out there eager to remix their own material. Best band ever? Who knows, but it’s still something that gripped me even decades after it. They were one of the bands me and my dad would listen to together, and they’ve become something of a meme (my generation knows them best by yelling out the opening lyrics to “Once In A Lifetime” without context, asking where is my beautiful house and my beautiful wife?).
Inevitably, there would be a spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense and it would inevitably feature only David Byrne after his falling out with the rest of the band. For all of his ingenuity, Byrne has historically been an incredibly difficult person to work with, the classical portrait of the narcissist who is enabled only because he happens to be talented as well. All of that provides a bittersweet edge to American Utopia even as it is as joyful and luminous as the rest of his work, now joined by an 11-person band of sorts. Byrne’s gray suit now fits him (more or less), and the band all wears the same clothes as him and stomps about the Broadway stage barefoot. It’s an intentional image clashing decorum with the sort of free love energy that hasn’t been expressed as anything other than a joke for a long time. Byrne misses the potential of the hippies and the free lovers and all those sorts, he makes jokes earnestly that Austin Powers would make cynically.
American Utopia is partially an album created in 2018 by Byrne and his fellow musical legend Brian Eno, and the Broadway show (directed by a little known up-and-comer called Spike Lee) integrates that with some of the greatest hits of Stop Making Sense. The minute he launches into an older song, the audience of mostly Boomers bursts to their feet in raucous applause. Byrne always looks annoyed that none of his new songs are getting the same kind of response, and honestly, can you really blame him? My favorite parts of this concert film is when the band and Lee and the crew work in unison to make some really stunning compositions out of a single Broadway stage and yet the audience only seems to care about getting drunk on theater wine and belting out “Burning Down The House” at the top of their lungs. The show’s first track, called “Here,” is a song about the parts of the human brain that feels like a postmodern Schoolhouse Rock in the best way, and a rendition of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” serving as a polemic to victims of police brutality is greeted with radio silence. This creates this weird metatextual layer to the whole thing, an audience of affluent Broadway guests only wanting to hear the hits and politely applauding the truly out-there places this band goes to.
But therein lies the rub, right? Broadway at this point is just senior citizens paying to watch the Broadway version of whatever Disney movie has been shat out into it, or the millionth rendition of “Death Of A Goddamn Salesman.” Other than “Hamilton” and “Hadestown” (the former of which will draw lots of comparisons to this), Broadway is showing just as little original material as the film industry. One suspects that if David Byrne’s name wasn’t on the poster, this film would be such a big flop that Mel Brooks would write a movie about it. And that is, again, not to say that it’s bad at all, but the relationship of a concert film is with the audience that is physically there as well as the viewers at home.
It’s damned enjoyable, especially when Byrne goes into interstitials in between certain songs, going over the Dadaist movement, and my favorite moment, when he talks about how babies have more neural connections than at any other stage of life. Byrne half-jokingly makes the argument that we’re at our dumbest as adults and I’m not inclined to disagree with him on this. And even as they dance around, instruments in hands, in intricate and beautifully played choreography (Byrne himself is a terrible dancer in the most adorable way), you can often see some cracks in the good intentions. One of Byrne’s spoken-word monologues is a rant against voter apathy, citing how 55% of Americans tend to vote in national elections and 20% vote in local elections, and how the average age of a voter is 57. He intends this as a “look at these damn kids” rants, preaching to the choir and conveniently pretending that voter suppression doesn’t exist or that Election Day isn’t intentionally set during a work day. Another is during the “Hell You Talmbout” number where Byrne grapples with the implications of a white man singing a song originally sung by a Black woman. Byrne somewhat sidesteps this by only singing one verse (a rare gesture of humility from someone as famously stuck-up as Byrne), but the citing of the names of Black men and women almost seems to pretend as if these people died from the flu rather than at the hands of police officers. That is not to say that this show should’ve avoided these topics altogether, but I wish more sensitivity was taken, I wish Byrne had given those most affected an unfiltered platform to speak out rather than doing the talking himself. That’s a good place to step back and support, and he doesn’t do that.
Ultimately, it’s what you see on the tin. If the Talking Heads is your kind of music (it’s certainly mine), you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. If this isn’t your thing, even Spike Lee making the best concert film of his career won’t be enough for you. It’s entertaining, a little bittersweet, often misses the mark, and a lot of other adjectives besides.
I give American Utopia a B+.