REVIEW: ‘American Utopia’ Shows David Byrne Is As Good As He Ever Was

Rating: 5 out of 5.

David Byrne has the most calming presence I’ve ever witnessed.

36 years after the ground-breaking Stop Making Sense, David Byrne is still taking our expectations of concerts and theatre, elevating them to a higher level that only a frontman like him could do. Stop Making Sense was more than just a concert, it was performing art, and American Utopia (2020) has taken those foundations and tells us why the world is still the same as it ever was. 

Whilst Stop Making Sense tried to bring attention to certain themes and ideas, American Utopia is screaming at us to wake up. Byrne begins the show sitting alone at a table with a model of a human brain. After his introductory song, he speaks to the crowd about how infants are born with millions of neural connections and overtime lose them as they get older. He asks the question “do we get stupider as we grow up?” and then  carries on to discuss human ignorance and the inability to change things. 2020 has seen us as individuals and as a society take a massive step back in growth and change – but Byrne is ever hopeful. When he aligns with the other performers and musicians on the stage singing “Road to Nowhere” you can tell he doesn’t believe this song at all, that we will prevail and overcome. 

David Byrne has the most calming presence I’ve ever witnessed. Watching him in fiction like True Stories or in real life discussing these matters, Byrne is on the top list of old white men that you can trust. He’s an entertainer and brings his informative side to coincide with this. Whilst addressing the audience, he makes references to past songs by asking “how do I work this”, not trying to hide his previous work like other bitter musicians. Hearing Byrne singing “This Must Be the Place” and other classics will warm any fan of Talking Heads. 

David Byrne sings on stage whilst a musician smiles behind.
Image Courtesy of HBO Max.

But what makes American Utopia on the same level as Stop Making Sense is Spike Lee’s input. It’s hard to compare any other concert movie to Stop Making Sense as it is the Citizen Kane of its genre, it took it to new ground and to try and compare anything to it is unfair, but Spike Lee has made a worthy cause to do as such with American Utopia. There’s a vast array of shot choices, varying close ups of Byrne and other performers that intercut at a great pace to intertwine the quick beat of songs being interspersed with various monologues. However Spike Lee’s immerse talent and proof that he’s one of the greatest directors working today occurs during Byrne’s cover of “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monae and other members of her artist collective. The protest song lists various names of black people who had died from racial violence by law enforcement and repeatedly tells the audience to say their names. It’s a powerful song by itself  but Spike Lee mixing this concert with candid’s of these victims on stage next to family or friends of the deceased and showing the dates they were killed with some being as young as  children is as empowering as any visual medium could be.

A collaboration between Spike Lee and David Byrne seems like a roll of the dice but American Utopia is a must-watch for the year, to remind you of the pain that it’s caused and how its roots are still there. But chance can happen, we don’t need to burn down the house, but as Byrne states the statistics of voter turnout, making your voice heard is the first step.

Header Image Courtesy of HBO Max.

Dir: Spike Lee

Written by: David Byrne