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‘American Utopia’ an all-timer of a concert film

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Among those who know me, my general ambivalence with regard to music is well-documented. It’s not that I don’t like music, it’s that I don’t have the same kind of connection to it that so many of my fellow creatively inclined types do. But there are exceptions, certain artists and eras that have worked their way past my general indifference and into my heart.

One such artist is David Byrne. From his early days with Talking Heads to his robust and varied solo career, I’ve always felt an affinity for Byrne’s work, a connection to his music and message – appropriate, really, considering the omnipresence of the idea of connection throughout his work.

That’s a big reason why I was so excited to check out “American Utopia” – currently streaming on HBO MAX – a filmed version of the stage show of the same name that Byrne launched just over a year ago. Another big reason is the fact that this concert film would be directed by none other than Spike Lee, another artist I admire – one who also digs deep into the idea of connection in his work, albeit from a different perspective than Byrne. Obviously, with two creative powerhouses like Byrne and Lee teaming up, this was going to be good.

Still, I was not prepared for just HOW good.

“American Utopia” is one of the most compelling and moving viewing experiences I’ve had in a very long time, a blend of songs from Byrne’s “American Utopia” album and a number of cuts from his extensive back catalog, all reimagined with the help of an exceptionally talented band. The music is exceptional, with Byrne both matching the youthful chaos magic of his early work and embracing his current status as an elder statesman of sorts. To bring together such seemingly disparate energies and attitudes is a triumph – one reflected in every joyful moment on the stage. And his interstitial moments are awash in oddball charm, reflecting a sort of optimism that Byrne almost can’t help but convey even as he breaks down some of the bleakness of the present time – even then, the joy remains front and center.

Capturing that joy in an electric live space and successfully conveying it through a screen is surely a monumental task. Luckily, we just happened to get one of the greatest American filmmakers of our time to execute said task. Lee’s own stylistic eye and exquisite instincts are a perfect complement to Byrne’s show; he elevates the experience not by bringing the performance out to us, but by bringing us into the performance. There’s a wild intimacy to what he does – he uses unusual angles and deft cuts, moving from handheld closeups to wide shots at just the right moment. Lee finds perspectives beyond those seen in person, turning the stage show into something cinematic while also maintaining its wonderful theatricality.

As you watch, you might find yourself wondering if this filmed experience was part of Byrne’s plan the whole time – there are so many moments that are so perfectly suited for film in general and for Lee in particular that it seems impossible that this was all happenstance.

I’m not even going to try to choose a favorite musical moment – the entire 90-minute show drips with excellence – but I’ll mention a few personal highlights. The bleeding together of “Everybody’s Coming to My House” into “Once in a Lifetime.” The piece-by-piece assembly introduction of “Born Under Punches.” The strikingly matched visual moments – including an image of Colin Kaepernick – of “I Should Watch TV” and the beautiful shadow play of “Blind.” The hauntingly lovely acapella closure of “One Fine Day.” And the most emotionally charged moment of all, a striking cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest song decrying institutional violence against black people, driven home by Lee’s matching images to the names, said images often held aloft by those the too-soon departed left behind.

Look, David Byrne was already a collaborator in one of the greatest concert films of all time when he teamed up with Jonathan Demme to make “Stop Making Sense” back in 1984. But who would have imagined that 36 years later, he would make another pantheon-level entry into the genre? I say this in all seriousness – “American Utopia” deserves to be on that list alongside movies like “The Last Waltz” and “Sign O’ the Times” and yes, “Stop Making Sense.” Ultimately, it is both unexpected and not at all surprising that Byrne would wind up as the central figure in two of the five best concert films ever made.

Considering the parties involved, I was always going to love “American Utopia.” I was not at all prepared to LOVE “American Utopia.” It is a moving and powerful musical document of this moment in time, one that captures the messy maelstrom of the now while also finding reasons to celebrate. Utopia might be an impossible dream, but we should be thankful for those like David Byrne who simply refuse to stop dreaming it.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2020 12:00

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