It's only slightly odd for Talking Heads front man David Byrne to claim his 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia, is merely based on the album and tour of the same name—it's pretty much a concert. In fact, it absolutely is a concert (witty banter betwixt songs included). But rather than re-performing the live show he'd toured and call it a day, Byrne does his fans and newcomers a solid by assembling one of the greatest international bands of all time, tossing it onto a minimal stage to play a combo of new songs and hits and then hiring Spike Lee to direct the thing. It's borderline magical (and will be to many) and does that super-fun up-close-and-personal thing that seems to grow more popular the longer we're pandemic-ing. But Utopia doesn't quite reach the Elysian heights you maybe expected or heard about from Byrne's legions of adorers. Love him or like him, though, you'll never mistake his style for someone else's. Plus, the man's got jams.
What else could you want from one of the most seminal songwriters of our time and the creator behind 1984's Stop Making Sense, arguably the single greatest contemporary music movie? Here, however, Byrne plumbs the depths of his psyche in a way that feels more vulnerable than ever. Rampant throughout Utopia are thought pieces on a house vs. a home, Byrne's relationship to brains and their chemistry (he's famously autistic) and some pretty sweet if restrained and simplistic dance moves choreographed by Annie-B Parson.
The highlight, though, comes with Byrne's cover of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout," wherein his ragtag band of singers, dancers, percussionists and rhythm-ers implore the audience to consider the countless Black Americans killed across time. "Say her name," they command, or "say his name. Say their name." Sandra Bland. Ahmaud Arbery. Emmett Till. It's a powerful tribute and an example of an artist using their platform for good. It also strikes a somber tone without keeping us there for good; the in-film audience, who danced in the aisles mere moments earlier, sits at attention while family members of the slain hold up large scale photos offstage. It's chilling, but vital and hopefully reaches someone, especially as we barrel toward the election.
It also solidifies Byrne's reputation as enduringly relevant, and though it might have been nice to get a little more insight into the nuts and bolts of the songs or even just the performance itself, folks will be talking about this one. As well they should.
+Byrne rules; the music, duh
-Could have gone deeper
David Byrne's American Utopia
Directed by Lee
HBO, TV-14, 105 min.