American Utopia Review : Pop Culture Happy Hour David Byrne and Spike Lee. Two artists with very defined, very distinct, and yet very different, sensibilities — but when you put them together, it works. The theatrical concert film David Byrne's American Utopia, now streaming on HBO Max, is a career-spanning celebration of Byrne's music, both with Talking Heads and his solo work. Director Spike Lee shoots the stage of Broadway's Hudson Theater from a host of angles to capture the exuberant, rollicking — yet rigorously choreographed energy — of Byrne and his fellow barefoot, silver-gray-suited performers.
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'American Utopia': David Byrne's Coming To My House, Via HBO

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'American Utopia': David Byrne's Coming To My House, Via HBO

'American Utopia': David Byrne's Coming To My House, Via HBO

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

David Byrne, Spike Lee - two artists with very defined, very distinct and yet very different sensibilities. But when you put them together, it works. The theatrical concert film "David Byrne's American Utopia" is a career-spanning celebration of Byrnes' music, both with Talking Heads and his solo stuff. Director Spike Lee shoots the stage of Broadway's Hudson Theatre from a host of angles to capture the exuberant, rollicking, yet rigorously choreographed energy of Byrne and his fellow performers.

I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "David Byrne's American Utopia" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in Brooklyn is Soraya Nadia McDonald, cultural critic for The Undefeated. Welcome back, Soraya.

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Thank you for having me.

WELDON: And also here from his home in Washington, D.C., is our old pal writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris.

CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: This ain't no party, ain't no disco, ain't no fooling around, Glen.

WELDON: It certainly isn't. So "David Byrne's American Utopia" is now streaming on HBO Max. It's a filmed version of a performance by Byrne and 11 international musicians, and it's as much a theatrical spectacle as a musical one. He's gradually joined by other performers, dancers, singers, guitarists, percussionists. They're all wearing the same silver gray suits. They're all barefoot, and they're all on wireless mics so they can move around the stage freely, which turns out to be important because as they play, they execute this very precise kind of color guard-y (ph) choreography by Annie-B Parson. Now, spoiler alert - we all love this thing.

Soraya, you saw this production on Broadway, so let's start with how well Spike Lee captured it.

MCDONALD: Yeah, I thought he did a great job. I like to be nosey, and I feel like Spike indulged my nosiness because he is getting the angles that you can't necessarily see if you're just sitting in the audience, even from the rather nice press seats in the orchestra.

WELDON: Mmm hmm.

MCDONALD: So he's got, like, these wonderful sort of, like, overhead shots. There's this really cool backdrop that's almost a sort of silvery beaded curtain that surrounds the outer corners of the stage. You know, he gives us a different perspective of what that looks like. And, of course, you know, from the moment this was announced, I was really interested, particularly because Jonathan Demme's film of "Stop Making Sense" is so indelible...

KLIMEK: Classic.

MCDONALD: Exactly - it's classic. And part of what Spike, I think, gets at really well is just the joy that is so absolutely present in this show and makes it so addictive. (Laughter). Certainly, that was the thing, after I saw it, where I kept listening to the Broadway cast recording on repeat (laughter) afterward. I think of myself as a very sort of reasonable person. But if David Byrne decided to start a cult, I would probably join it.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Yeah.

MCDONALD: I'm not surprised at all by Spike's skill level, especially because I think a lot of the time his documentary films tend to be better than some of his narrative ones. And so I feel like there's sort of a palpable sense of, like, the fun that he's having as a director...

WELDON: Yeah.

MCDONALD: ...Capturing this.

WELDON: Right. I mean - and let's face it, this is as close as many of us are going to get to live theater for a while. And I got to say, early on, you see those people in the front row who are really feeling it, and they want everyone around them to know how deeply they're feeling it. And my first reaction was like - ugh, those jerks in the front row. And my second instantaneous reaction was like, I miss resenting the jerks in the front row. (Laughter).

MCDONALD: Yes. (Laughter).

WELDON: Now, Chris, some listeners are going to be thinking, OK, what you're talking about here is a greatest hits, a victory lap. And it does flirt with that in places. I mean, yes, when they launch into "Once In A Lifetime" - we can hear a little bit of it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

DAVID BYRNE: (Singing) You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by, water flowing underground. Into the blue again after the money's gone. Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground. You may ask yourself...

WELDON: When they launch into it, you're sitting there going, well, is he going to - is he - and then he does the convulsions. And you're like, oh, OK. And there's also a bare floor lamp that comes on stage reminding us of, you know, the 1984 Talking Heads film. So what is it about this that keeps it from feeling same as it ever was, to coin a phrase?

MCDONALD: (Laughter).

KLIMEK: Well, I think it's the very great sense of curation and attention paid to sequencing. And, you know, as you have teased me about for as long as you've known me - right? - like, most of my favorite musicians tend to be in the David Byrne cohort. They are what we would congenerously call legacy artists. And all of them, like David Byrne, have to confront the problem that most of their audience is not showing up for their new music. There is an expectation that, you know, yes, we will indulge, you know, 40 minutes of your latest album as long as you play the stuff that you wrote 30, 40, 50 years ago. Feeling the way that different artists kind of kick against that expectation or make their peace with it has been, like, kind of a career-long interest of mine.

I think this show does it about as well as any that I've ever seen because it does not go along that sort of formula of new album plus greatest hits. You know, there are there are some genuine deep cuts here. "Don't Worry About The Government," the second song of the show from "Talking Heads: 77," very seldom played.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

BYRNE: Loved ones, loved ones visit the building. Take the highway, park and come up and see me. I'll be working, working. But if you come visit, I'll put down what I'm doing. My friends are important. Don't you worry 'bout me. I wouldn't worry about me. Don't you worry...

KLIMEK: And that gets kind of a warm response from the audience, which is a little weird because that's not like a Talking Heads banger. It's not "Burning Down The House," where as soon as it starts, you know, people are jumping out of their seats. The weirder Brian Eno collaborations - "Bullet" is another very powerful one. And of course, that's a song that's always going to feel like it was written yesterday.

WELDON: Mmm hmm.

KLIMEK: I have not seen this show on Broadway, but I did see when Byrne toured his last Eno collaboration album, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" in '08, '09. And I reviewed that show and went back and saw it a couple more times because I was just so entranced by it. And that really does look very much like almost a dry run for this. They have the monochromatic costumes. It was white in that case, not gray or silver as they are now. But I mean, there were two or three just dedicated dancers onstage who occasionally contributed percussion or, you know, backing vocals but whose main job there was to execute the choreography. But I think the brilliant curation is the answer to your question.

WELDON: OK. That's a good answer. If we're not being clear about this, folks, this thing is a balm for my withered soul. I think it's the balm for humanity's soul but especially for me. I've always felt a very deep connection to David Byrne. He kind of saved my life. I grew up in suburban Philly in the '80s where if you didn't listen to classic rock and only classic rock, you were labeled gay. And I didn't want that to happen for a variety of reasons, so I listened to classic rock. It didn't take.

And then all of a sudden, the "Once In A Lifetime" video would crop up on MTV a lot. And I just felt, this is not just for me - this is me. So I went to the Sam Goody in Exton mall, and I bought not just "Speaking In Tongues," which was their new album at the time, but their entire back catalog. And when I plopped their first album, which you just mentioned, Chris, "Talking Heads: 77" down on the counter, I got it. For the first time - we all remember where we are the first time it happens - the music clerk head nod. He said, good choice. It shaped me.

So I was in college when Talking Heads broke up. I was inconsolable, but I have always followed Byrne's solo stuff and his collaborations with people like Brian Eno and Robert Wilson and Twyla Tharp. And something you really see here, I think, is that there's something about Byrne that speaks to me on a very personal level, this disconnect he has. The music can be so rapturous and almost literally ecstatic, but his affect is so awkward and cerebral and almost diffident - cool, but not cool as in hip - cool is in temperature-wise.

There's a distance between him and the audience, but it's not an ironic distance, and it's not a feeling of superiority. It's just - he's off. Right? And because I identify with him so much, I've always read that as, I know what that is - that's self-consciousness. But after watching this, I'm not so sure I'm right. Soraya, do you know what I'm talking about here, this disconnect?

MCDONALD: Yeah. You know, I think maybe it's - despite the fact that David Byrne is a naturalized American citizen, I think perhaps what we're seeing is some of that Scottishness coming through.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: You know? He's not one of those artists who is, like, supereffusive. And yet, there is this earnestness about the music that is able to come through. You also see it in the choreography, you know, which feels a little strange and maybe - you know, it's like, what if we got a bunch of humans together and sort of turned them into trigonometry problems?

(LAUGHTER)

KLIMEK: David Byrne would spend two years on that, Soraya. You've just given him a prompt, and we will see him again in 2023.

MCDONALD: (Laughter). But at the same time, part of that is because, you know, he can kind of just let that enthusiasm sort of reverberate from the audience. And the other thing is this sort of, like, multiculti array of people that he has around him dancing and singing and playing instruments kind of fills that role of that energy. So I almost hate admitting this, but when I was watching the screener, I was also sort of, like, trying to do the movements in my living room - like, very poorly.

WELDON: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: And I was like, this is a workout. They are deceptively simple. You will wear yourself out. (Laughter). You know, one of the things that is really sort of powerful about theater and which - you know, which brings me back to it is usually its earnestness.

WELDON: Yeah.

MCDONALD: And I feel like that earnestness is still there with "American Utopia." It's just in a different way. And so what I ended up writing, I think, was that - and I was talking specifically about Tendayi Kuumba, Bobby Wooten III and Angie Swan. I was like, these are the happiest Black people I have seen on a stage, like, all season (laughter).

WELDON: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: It felt like it was coming from a much sort of deeper place.

WELDON: Yeah.

MCDONALD: The other thing - you know, if we want to sort of go back to curation, OK, so you've got the sort of Talking Heads greatest hits. You've got some of his solo work. And then he folds in this protest song written by Janelle Monae. Now, when I was there seeing this on Broadway, it's a bit of a weird experience - right? - because I will go ahead and say that, like, the vast majority of the folks who were there are, like, middle-age, crunchy granola, liberal white people (laughter).

WELDON: Right.

MCDONALD: You feel the distance, you know, between Black liberals and Black leftists and white people who ostensibly sit along the same side of the political spectrum when this song comes on. Right? So you have his sort of hardcore fans who are like, I don't know what this song is. Why are we playing this?

WELDON: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: And for those who don't know, it's a protest song - it's very simple. There is this refrain of say her name or say his name - right? - for this year, it would be say his name, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, you know, George Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

BYRNE: (Singing) Sandra Bland. Say her name. Sandra Bland. Say her name. Sandra Bland. Say her name. Sandra Bland. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Say her name. Hell you talmbout? Hell you talmbout? Hell you talmbout? Hell you talmbout?

MCDONALD: And It was so emotionally powerful for me 'cause I could feel myself, like, wanting to connect with the performers and really just sort of, like, laser-focused on them as they're pouring all of their energy into this song to the point that, like, by the time they finished, like, there were just tears streaming down my face. Now, this is not necessarily a universal experience for the audience 'cause I turned around, and I saw there are some folks who were either confused or who were just annoyed - like, why are we going to this sort of like depressing arena of Black death?

WELDON: Wow.

MCDONALD: But at the same time, it's so powerful. And I think, particularly in a show that is called "American Utopia," you have to sort of acknowledge, like, what are the barriers to getting to the place that must be the place, right? And this is one of them. And so it just made my, you know, respect for him grow that much more.

WELDON: One of the things Spike Lee adds - one of the many things Spike Lee adds is while that song, "Hell You Talmbout," is going on, it attains this simple incantatory power.

MCDONALD: Yes.

WELDON: We see shots of parents holding giant photos of their sons and daughters as they are named. It is so simple. It's powerful. It risks pushing you over the edge. But, man, it's just there.

KLIMEK: Yeah. The insert shots that Spike brings into the Janelle Monae number, that is another one of those moments where you remember that you are watching a Spike Lee Joint, even though this is a concert film - right? - 'cause he does that into "Da 5 Bloods," he does that in "BlacKkKlansman." I mean, that is kind of a trademark of his in the same way that theatrical...

MCDONALD: Yeah.

KLIMEK: ...Devices like direct address have always been a Spike Lee signature.

WELDON: Yeah. I do want to dig in a little bit more on the choreography of this thing...

MCDONALD: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Which is very precise and very rigorous and very coordinated. But apart from his two backing vocalists, Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo who are so lithe and expressive and so comfortable in their own skins, the movements that Byrne and the other folks are doing are more - I don't want to say stiff, but it's choreography for those not trained in dance. Right? It's less about the individual movement. It's more about the collective movement, how they all look together as a group. It's what I call the Dua Lipa effect. If you - if you're not so great with the dancing, you surround yourself with great dancers, and you can get away with a lot. It has this very simple, very powerful effect, even as abstract and as weird as it looks sometimes. Yes?

MCDONALD: I certainly think so - yeah. Particularly if you are a person who is not familiar with Talking Heads - you know, if you are basically approaching this and you are a newbie, it is a way of sort of drawing you in because nothing about it feels conventional. You're just like, who are these people? I mean, he opens the show, like, holding a model of a human brain. You're just like, where's this guy going with this? If you are a person who just enjoys, like, being intrigued and then just kind of, like, following that, you know, where it may lead, the choreography certainly adds to that.

KLIMEK: There's a way in which Byrne kind of makes himself a prop in the choreography. And that's what I remember from the show that I saw, too, where a lot of the routines - even though, you know, Byrne himself does, you know, very athletic things at different points, there are also lots of sequences where he's basically standing still and letting the dancers use him as a focal point. I remember - again, not to go back to that tour that I saw more than a decade ago - but like, repeated points where he would stand there still and one of the dancers would just vault over him. You know, and he wouldn't be crouching down or anything. I mean, he would be standing at his full height. And I just remember thinking, like, how many times did they have to rehearse this for him to not flinch, for him to just trust that this person is not going to break his neck while they are just hurtling over his 6-foot-whatever frame.

WELDON: OK. Well, we clearly love it, but we want to know what you think about "David Byrne's American Utopia." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here.

KLIMEK: Thank you, Glen.

MCDONALD: Thank you so much, Glen.

WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all on Friday, when we will be talking about the new Netflix movie "Rebecca."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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