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Talking Heads, perhaps then the most critically lauded band in the US, released the concert film Stop Making Sense in 1984. While some relationships were beginning to fracture, the new-wave four-piece were riding high on an imperious streak of records that began with the anxious, post-punk stylings of debut Talking Heads: 77. Stop Making Sense, made in support of the final great record of the run Speaking in Tongues, proved a soothing, mood-improving tonic for the fed-up who felt nothing trickling down from the prevailing ‘Reaganomic’ system.
Decades on and Stop Making Sense still wears its reputation as ‘the greatest concert put to film’ well. In 2020 the syncopated rhythms remain just as infectious, the ‘big suit’ just as iconic and the jovial gyrating just as hypnotising. Featuring some of the best music of the 1980s and late 70s, it will always be a reliable, uplifting escape from the outside world. David Byrne’s American Utopia is that film and it isn’t that film. The former Talking Heads frontman has given us a Broadway gig that is undoubtedly a bunch of fun but one which also takes stock of the dispiriting aspects of the American experience. With an in-form Spike Lee at the helm, this is an exhilarating, supremely shot live performance peppered with a few reality checks for the viewer.
That title, taken from the album of the same name, is unsurprisingly a political statement in and of itself. ‘American’ in that the stage is a melting pot of nationality, gender and race, with half of the performers hailing from a nation other than the US. “Most of us are immigrants and we couldn’t do it without them,” Byrne tells an enraptured audience in one of his numerous, mini monologues throughout. The idea of an ‘American Utopia’ also seems palpably ludicrous given the current upheavals and struggles for racial justice. Not to mention the botched response to a global pandemic which even our cynical composer would have struggled to predict when he recorded this last year.
Things start off, very literally, in cerebral fashion. In a version superior to the studio effort, Byrne sings album closer “Here” while holding a human brain, the very organ the track centres around. Our singer lists off the functions and limitations of the cerebrum’s ability to construct our reality and emotional connections. On the record, this was a so-so denouement but here it is an effective thesis statement for the show. “Looking at people, that’s the best,” he says winkingly at one point. American Utopia is about what makes us tick, our worst impulses and learning to not overthink all that too much and enjoy the ride.
That all may sound rather pseudo-intellectual but the self-effacing maestro at the centre keeps us engaged. The show flirts with the postmodern while Byrne ensures the wider audience won’t be alienated by such notions. The exquisitely costumed performers are all dressed like extras in a surrealist comedy by Jacques Tati. Their apparently drab uniformity only heightens the ebullience of the troupe’s movements. In the greyish, washed-out business attire, the cheery contortions come off like minor acts of rebellion. The clockwork precision of the choreography most impresses in the group march that compliments the rhythmic chant of “I Zimbra” or the minimal maneuvers that suit the mid-tempo classic “This Must Be the Place”.
While there are vocal creaks that show his age here and there, Byrne’s voice soars on the longer notes which are given a boost thanks to the impressive acoustics. The quality of the man’s back catalogue speaks, or rather sings, for itself. These versions of Talking Heads staples like “Burning Down the House” or “Once in a Lifetime” are barnstorming efforts that wouldn’t embarrass themselves if heard alongside their Stop Making Sense cousins. The boisterous encore of “Road to Nowhere” is be the rollicking bookend to 2020 you probably knew you needed.
While Stop Making Sense probably just edges it in terms of music, American Utopia is the more visually dynamic of the two. Spike Lee, along with cinematographer Ellen Kraus, feel like more active participants than Jonathan Demme did in 1983. There are small, unobtrusive touches that come from all sides of the set like a low angle, insert of bare feet or an overhead of the band marching in a circle. These aren’t groundbreaking decisions, but they add to the sense that at-home viewers are inhabiting the cube-like performance space just like our players.
Spike Lee’s most significant involvement perhaps comes during the penultimate song of the night, a cover of Janelle Monaé’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout”. The powerful piece sees the vocalists singing the names of black men and women who died senselessly at the hands of police or others. Through David Byrne and his band, the song becomes as much a celebration of the lives lived as a condemnation of how those lives were lost. Intercut with photos of those killed, the scene offers a heart-rending catharsis for an America in need of it.
It’s that same moment that puts a show like this in stark contrast with Stop Making Sense. The 1984 work was one of pure elation and a joyous, welcoming diversion but American Utopia shows us an artist willing to be more direct with his political positions. Perhaps amid an encroaching climate catastrophe there is no room for less pertinent, existential ruminations. As a self-declared ‘white man of a certain age,’ Byrne felt the need to ask permission from the original artist to cover “Hell You Talmbout”. Along with his recent apology for a blackface mishap in the 80s, this was evidence of man willing to get with times and make the times better for it.
As the man himself says, the song offers a possibility of change, “not just in the perfect world out there, but in myself too”.