TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The musician David Byrne took his theatrical concert, "American Utopia," to Broadway last October for a short run closing on February 16. That live show has now been made into a film directed by Spike Lee, which premieres this Saturday on HBO. Our critic at large, John Powers, says the show's optimistic high spirits offer some relief from what has been a very rough year.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back when the Nazis were running roughshod over his homeland, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem that asked, in the dark times, will there will be singing? And it gave a reply. Yes, there will be singing about the dark times. Of course, there are many ways of singing about darkness. One is to celebrate hope. That's what's on offer in HBO's "David Byrne's American Utopia," a joyous blend of song, dance and revival meeting. Capturing a live performance of the acclaimed Broadway show, the film was directed by Spike Lee. Now, Spike might not be the first person you'd expect to click with Byrne, a guy I don't exactly picture yelling courtside at the Knicks game. Yet Lee is terrific at filming live performances, and his swooping, shrewdly observant camera meshes perfectly with Byrne's layered and rousing sense of musical theater.
This is one show you can dance to. "American Utopia" starts with Byrne, barefoot in a silver gray suit, holding a model of the brain and pondering different ideas of connection. He's gradually joined by his equally barefoot co-stars, also uniformed in silver gray suits, who sing, dance and play handheld instruments as they do nearly 20 Byrne songs, from his "Talking Heads" classics to his more recent solo work. Thanks to wireless technology, everyone moves around the stage in seemingly total freedom. Byrne's work has long been obsessed with the many ways of being imprisoned, in oneself, in an addiction to things, in a meaningless life and equally attuned to different forms of escape. "American Utopia" features a series of songs that ask questions about the meaning of home. The answers range from the welcoming good spirits of "Everybody's Coming to My House," to the rowdier energies found in this rendition of "Talking Heads" party song "Burning Down The House."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Watch out, you might get what you're after. Boom babies, strange but not a stranger. I'm an ordinary guy, burning down the house. Hold tight, wait till the party's over. Hold tight. We're in for nasty weather. There has got to be a way, burning down the house.
POWERS: In fact, the show isn't actually about burning anything down. It's about conjuring an image of an American utopia. You'll be relieved to hear that Byrne isn't hectoring. Yes, he gives a little speech about the need to vote, but he doesn't say who for. And yes, Byrne points out that many of his cast members are immigrants, as is he, a naturalized American born in Scotland. And his vision of utopia is not any kind of political program. It's the show itself. For Byrne, utopia is about embracing difference. It's about men and women from diverse races and cultures coming together to create something new, alive and beautiful that helps people connect.
While Byrne starts alone on the stage, by the grand finale, he and his co-stars are marching through the aisles, singing the cheery song "Road To Nowhere." Everybody's together on screen, even the audience. In a way, the show echoes Byrne's own artistic transformation. Back in his early post-punk days, he was almost a parody of the nerdy, angst-riddled white guy. With his onstage tics and spasms, he seemed a bit like "Psycho's" Norman Bates if Norman hadn't turned into his dead mother but instead gone to art school. What liberated him seems to have been his encounter with Black music. Byrne's persona became sunnier and more communal, as you could see in Jonathan Demme's great 1984 concert film "Stop Making Sense," where Byrne and his fellow Talking Heads exude sheer collective joy.
Now, the skeptic in me feels obliged to note one limitation of the show's communitarian notion of utopia. Byrne writes and sings lead on all the songs. He's obviously the star. Everybody else play second fiddle. And while they clearly enjoy performing, I suspect being a backup is not how they view utopia. Yet if Byrne doesn't always rise above stardom's privilege, he's attuned to other ways he's privileged. He realizes that the show's upbeat vibe could easily turn into feel-good kitsch that feels disconnected from present-day reality. So he puts some political steel in the show's spine by including a startling rendition of the Janelle Monae protest song "Hell You Talmbout," whose lyrics are basically the names of African Americans who've died at police hands or from racial violence. This powerful song is political in a way that Byrne's talk about voting is not. Yet its presence offers a necessary reminder that any utopia begins in a world that is painfully far from perfect. You can only sing yourself through the dark times if you don't forget how dark they can be.
GROSS: John Powers is our critic at large. He reviewed the film version of David Byrne's "American Utopia," which premieres on HBO October 17. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be two beloved Broadway stars, Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker, a married couple whose lives have been upended by illness. He was starring in the Broadway show "Moulin Rouge" when it went dark last March because of COVID. He got a severe case, then she had a relatively mild one just months after she was diagnosed with the progressive neuromuscular disorder ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. We'll talk about their lives now, what they've been through recently and listen to some of their great music. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TO NOWHERE")
TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Well, we know where we're going, but we don't know where we've been. And we know what we're knowing, but we can't say what we've seen. And we're not little children and we know what we want. And the future is certain. Give us time to work it out. We're on a road to nowhere. Come on inside. Taking that ride to nowhere. We'll take that ride. I'm feeling OK this morning. And you know we're on the road to paradise. Here we go. Here we go.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.