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Sat Oct 17, 2020, 10:13 AM

"David Byrne's American Utopia" is a rousing, vibrant spectacular that rivals "Stop Making Sense"

"David Byrne's American Utopia" is a rousing, vibrant spectacular that rivals "Stop Making Sense"
Spike Lee directs HBO's visually stimulating and politically engaged concert that will have viewers dancing at home

OCTOBER 17, 2020 3:00PM

(Salon) David Byrne is perspicacious a canny mix of smarts and wonder. His body moves gracefully too, especially when he is gyrating to a relentlessly percussive beat. Spike Lee nicely captures Byrne's mind and body as well as his musical talents in "American Utopia," the lively documentary version of the hit Broadway show that makes its way to HBO for safe viewing, after it was selected as the Opening Night feature at this year's Toronto Film Festival and had a Spotlight presentation at the recent New York Film Festival.

Having seen the 2018 concert version of the show, Lee's documentary does the music and energy of the stage performance justice. The powerhouse sound of the drumming and joyful force of the songs as well as the few political messages come through loud and clear. Despite being a film that will mostly be viewed in one's living room, it is impossible to just sit and watch. Lee and Byrne practically encourage folks to dance and sing along. (The audience at the performance recorded for the film is periodically shown to be on their feet, singing and dancing.)

"American Utopia" opens with an overhead shot of Byrne sitting at a table with a model of a brain between his hands. He gets up and holds the brain up and looks quizzically at it, singing "Here," about the sections of the brain, and about confusion and precision. He is, surely, suggesting that folks think critically. After the song, he addresses the audience, talking about baby's brains, and how they potentially have more knowledge than adults who lose connections and reach "a plateau of stupidity." These comments form the show's thread, about developing and defining who we are as people, our connections with others, and even discussions about democracy, immigration, and Black Lives Matter, among other topics.

Byrne's thesis provides the framework for the nearly two dozen songs several from the Talking Heads' catalog that make the show as vibrant and stimulating as "Stop Making Sense." When Byrne talks about nonsense poetry, he explains how Dadaists in the 1930s used nonsense to make sense of a world there was an economic crash, Nazis, and fascism on the rise that didn't make sense. He performs snippets from Kurt Schwitters' "Sonate in Urlauten" to illustrate how these nonsense poets reminded the world of different, independent minds with ideals that were beyond war and nationality, before launching into a rousing rendition of "I Zimbra," which features lyrics from Hugo Ball's Dadaist poetry and African beats. ............(more)


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