World News – US – « David Byrne’s American Utopia » is an exciting and vibrant show that rivals « Stop Making Sense »


David Byrne is insightful – a skillful blend of intelligence and wonder His body moves gracefully too, especially when it spins to a relentless punchy beat Spike Lee captures Byrne’s mind and body well as well as his musical talents in « American Utopia », the animated documentary version of the hit Broadway show that is making its way to HBO for safe viewing, after being selected as the opening night feature at this Toronto Film Festival and had a Spotlight presentation at the recent New York Film Festival

After seeing the 2018 concert version of the show, Lee’s documentary does justice to the music and energy of the stage performance The mighty sound of the drum and the joyful force of the songs – along with the few political messages – come out loud Although this is a movie that will be mostly watched in your living room, it’s impossible to just sit back and watch Lee and Byrne practically encourage people to dance and sing along (Audiences during of the performance recorded for the film is regularly shown standing, singing and dancing)

« American Utopia » opens with an overhead view of Byrne sitting at a table with a model of the brain in his hands He stands up and holds the brain in the air and looks at it questioningly, singing « Here », about sections of the brain, confusion and precision He surely suggests that people think critically After the song, he addresses the audience, talking about baby’s brain, and how they potentially have more knowledge than adults who lose their connections and hit a « stupid plateau » These comments form the common thread of the show, about developing and defining who we are as people, our relationships with others, and even talks about Democracy, Immigration, and Black Lives Matter, among other topics

Byrne’s thesis provides the setting for nearly two dozen songs – several from the Talking Heads catalog – that make the show as lively and stimulating as « Stop Making Sense » When Byrne talks about absurd poetry, he explains how the Dadaists in the 1930s used nonsense to make sense of a world – there was an economic crash, the Nazis and fascism on the rise – it didn’t make sense He performs excerpts from Kurt Schwitters’ « Sonata in Urlauten » to illustrate how these absurd poets reminded the world of different and independent minds with ideals that transcended war and nationality, before embarking on a gripping rendition of « I Zimbra « , which contains lyrics from Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poetry and African rhythms

While Lee is filming this performance, he provides close-ups, which can be frustrating for viewers who want to see the dancers and musicians’ full bodies as they move The music is catchy, but the editing (on this number and several others) can be awkward Lee repeatedly pulls through the chain curtain that surrounds the stage on three sides, providing a unique perspective, but these moments also seem necessary only when the curtain is part of the performance Likewise, a handful of aerial shots work best during songs that have Busby Berkeley-style choreography (« Every Day Is A Miracle » and « Burning Down the House »). Otherwise, they can remove viewers from the experience

« American Utopia » emphasizes the benefits and need for diversity and inclusiveness Byrne considers this specifically when presenting « Everybody’s Coming to My House » He explains how his version of the song suggests a social anxiety, but a version sung by the Detroit School of Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble celebrates inclusion (The chorus track is played during the film’s closing credits, to cement this valid point) It’s also an opportunity for Byrne , a naturalized citizen, to mention that many of the 11 band members on stage with him are immigrants, adding: « And we couldn’t do it without them »

Later footage shows that all music heard on stage is live, without playback; Byrne shows how the song « Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) » is constructed The drums are rhythmic and thrilling and proves why a subsequent shot of Brazilian percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva performing a solo during the song « Blind » is so thrilling Lee provides also artfully close-up of Byrne playing the opening signature chords of « Burning Down the House »

Lee and Byrne get into politics a few times in « American Utopia » (How can they not?) Performers kneel during « I Should Watch TV », as a picture of Colin Kaepernick flashes briefly on screen Byrne indicates that only 20% of people voted in a recent local election and 55% voted for president in 2016 « We have to do better than 20% », he pleads. resistance piece, a performance of Janelle Monáe’s galvanizing protest song, « Hell You Talmbout, » Lee cuts to people holding posters of slain black men and women, including Treyvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till and many more. ‘other victims of racist violence, with their names on the screen

Fortunately, Lee resists shooting members of the audience in close-ups, except for a quick cut during « Burning Down the House », but he leaves the stage for the infectious « Road to Nowhere », when Byrne and his group parade the perimeter of the theater for the optimistic finale

Lee takes viewers briefly behind the scenes after the show, then out onto the streets during the closing credits It’s an inspired decision, but the real power of « American Utopia » is all on the stage

Gary M Kramer is a Philadelphia-based writer and film critic Follow him on Twitter

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David Byrne, Spike Lee, Talking Heads, American Utopia

World News – United States – « David Byrne’s American Utopia » is an exciting and vibrant show that rivals with « Stop Making Sense »


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