Byrne Medicine

October 16, 2020

IS AMERICAN UTOPIA A STATE OF MIND or a state of obliviousness? A bohemian house party transplanted to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or a cunningly intellectualized, Dadaist turned soccer dad musical of It’s a Wonderful Life? This concert film collaboration between the singer-conceptualist David Byrne and the director Spike Lee is “of the moment” but feels either brazenly or haplessly out of sync with actual America. In the lifetime between the show’s Broadway run back in late 2019–early 2020 and this doom-struck October, social uplift wrapped in musical euphoria has become suspect. “Precarity” having usurped “wellness” as society’s watchword, brainy faith and optimism go down like cotton candy doused with hand sanitizer, and you may find yourself hit by waves of ambivalence along with the undulating rhythms.

Byrne and Lee have taken a measured stab at producing a unifying secular-gospel vehicle—a thoroughly rationalized bookend to Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme’s fiendishly thrilling concert film of Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads at their jumpy, otherworldly apogee. On a professional, nuts-and-bolts level, they’ve succeeded. Byrne has arranged the songs for pinpoint directness and clarity, sharp as a thumbtack. Lee captures the singer and the swirling eleven-piece, percussion-heavy, multicultural ensemble darting around him in all their choreographed specificity: With his fine democratic eye for personalities, his attentiveness to the formal and informal qualities of movement and design, he subtly fortifies the metaphorical way Byrne and company go about playing, singing, and dance-drumming like a barefoot country in motion. Human bodies at rest and on the go, imbued with purpose, dignity, and wit. Musical and physical performance that’s tight and resilient as a talking drum.

But then comes Byrne himself, stopping the music dead to talk at us all funny-serious like, musing about our brains, explaining different stuff, politely waiting for applause after pat-yourselves-on-the-back lines (“Let’s hear it for the immigrants!” “How about that James Baldwin!” “Lifelong oppression!” “Voter registration, ladies and gentlemen!”). It’s destined to be the most effective PBS pledge drive in history, but for all the gestures of outreach, it is too tailored for Byrne’s demographic—that educated elite who prizes hip sensibility and expansive taste but can’t help viewing the working- and underclasses as a Third World populace. That aggressive passport-to-the-Other-America vibe, along with an upscale idealism that makes decency seem like a shrewd retirement investment, puts a damper on even the Juju slink of “Toe Jam.” I’ve loved David Byrne from his first recorded yelp, and I love Spike Lee (the last twenty minutes or so of 25th Hour are a magnificently scuffed, undaunted vision of a reborn America), but here Byrne’s conception boxes both of them in. Maybe this is the “new normal” I keep hearing about, but I don’t recall a concert or concert movie that left me so split down the middle between pure enjoyment and eye-rolling disenchantment: of two minds about every note.

American Utopia’s guiding principle is to submerge and resurface Byrne within that precision group’s cocoon, a snaking drum line used to illustrate a combination algebra problem and civics lesson. Bundling his more imposing older songs with newer material, he imagines a bridge to a born-again nation in the shape of a long inspirational arc. He’s turned the songs into talking points, illustrations of social trauma and possibility and how or why “We gotta do better.” A few land with a thud: “Don’t Worry About the Government” is treated like a musty curio instead of the grand autism-spectrum anthem it was on Talking Heads ’77. The one-two stumble of “I Dance Like This” and the insufferably airy, detached “Bullet” (featuring some of Lee’s best camera compositions, the images become austere salt in the sterilized wound) are the low points. “One Fine Day” and “Once in a Lifetime” are the highs: Tapping into untethered currents of mystery and grace, floating above the billboards, they’re reminders of depths you can’t touch with TED or pep talks. “Once in a Lifetime” was a signature moment in Stop Making Sense and it is again here. The singer Demme filmed was a man both possessed and dispossessed, an evangelist falling backward into the void. The professorial man Lee shoots is abashed, pedagogic, and equivocating, a sanctified heel slipping between an overconfident past, a destabilized present, and a radically uncertain future, again asking the same timeless question: “How did I get here?”

Well, how the hell did we? That is what American Utopia plays off of, dodges (“I’m a tumbler,” brags Byrne’s trickster “Born Under Punches” persona), dances with. It’s a ballet—and pre-pandemic intellectual buffet—of good intentions, magical thinking forced to straddle the chasm between a boatload of aspirational bourgeois consciousness-raising/connection-making and the contagious nihilism that’s gone airborne like so many droplets of aerosolized rage. “Burning Down the House” arrives late and erupts with the incandescence of a Hindenburg dance party: Lee opens up the frame to show a crowd bopping like blind mice at a night rally, catching the band in an overhead shot marching in pinwheel formation. (The image caught in my brain, and for a split second I wondered if the band might morph the Busby Berkeley pattern into a swastika à la Mel Brooks. That might have upped the discomfort temperature enough to make the audience sweat in more than an aerobic-cathartic way.)

Lee gets lots of pleasurable mileage out of the band and their different personalities and nationalities: Especially dancer/singer Chris Giarmo—he bobs and weaves from background to foreground like Byrne’s impish, polymorphous shadow—and the Columbian Canadian percussionist/dancer/singer Jacqueline Acevedo, who brings a shot of ’40s movie star glamour (Rita Hayworth as master drummer) to the proceedings. But as Byrne sheepishly admits here, he is who he is, and in hitting his marks he’s also hitting the limits of where his art is at now. He wants to integrate the “say their names” fierceness of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” into his audience’s worldview. Without disrupting their comfort zones, though. It isn’t bad faith, exactly, but he’s bitten off more than he’s able or willing to change.

Part of it is the times—everyone and everything is stressed to the breaking point, so why should art or artists catch a benefit of the doubt? But also, over the long haul of his career, David Byrne became an institution. And while Spike Lee is still in touch with his old underdog Mars Blackmon side, he isn’t going to push Byrne any further than he did Michael Jordan. One thing that made Stop Making Sense a true American classic was how the act of fusing Fela Kuti’s African aesthetics with the white-on-white pitter-patterns of Philip Glass’s compositions and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (among many other influences and equally inspired thefts) was a strangely humane gesture: a rapturous reckoning with transcendence and nihilism sans explanations or operating instructions. 

The best side of American Utopia is how labor-intensive and demanding the performance is—these men and women doing highly skilled physical labor with a sense of deep satisfaction. The other unexpectedly rewarding thing is how kid-friendly it is: This project might have taken flight if he and Lee had leaned into a Pee-wee’s Americana elasticity, beefed up the roles of Giarmo, Acevedo, and the rest, and thrown that gray-suited piety out the stained-glass window.

— Howard Hampton

American Utopia will be available to stream on HBO Max starting October 17.