Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia
When we think about the closures and scheduling upheavals caused by the pandemic, at Cineluxe we generally focus on what this has meant for theaters and movie releases, but it has had an equally disastrous impact on live events like plays and concerts. The Great White Way—Broadway—officially closed to the public on March 12 (and remains closed), and most large concert tours have been postponed as well.
At the intersection of play/performance, concert, and movie is David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee. Utopia has been available for streaming on HBO Max since October 17, and recently made available to other digital retailers like
Kaleidescape, where it is offered for both purchase and rental.
Inspired by Byrne’s 2018 tour for his tenth solo studio album, American Utopia, Byrne worked the concert into a Broadway show that ran at the Hudson Theater from October 4, 2019 to February 16, 2020. (It is set to return to the Hudson for a four-month run starting September 17.)
For the pop-culture impaired, David Byrne is most known as the lead singer and principal creative force behind Talking Heads. In high school, I thought Byrne was about the smartest and coolest rock star around. I loved Talking Heads, owned every album, and wore out countless batteries devouring their albums on my Walkman. But, sadly, I never had the chance to see them perform live.
I did do the next best thing, which was to go and see the band’s seminal concert film Stop Making Sense more than
UTOPIA AT A GLANCE
This Spike Lee-directed film of Talking Heads frontman Byrne’s concert/performance piece is on par with the classic Stop Making Sense.
The image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, but the HD presentation does lead to some artifacting.
The mix is restrained and front-centric, with most of the audio in the center channel, with the surrounds deployed for light fill.
once, including several midnight showings at the Berkeley Theater, where people of all ages would get up and dance down in the aisles and down in front of the screen. It was fantastic. I’ve since seen Byrne perform live on three occasions, including the American Utopia show when it came to Charleston in September 2018.
While the Utopia film is very similar to the concert experience, it does differ a bit in the set list and song order. While I’m sure Byrne has reasons for the songs selected and their order in establishing and telling his story, there is plenty here for fans to enjoy. In total, the show features 21 songs, including a sampling of Talking Heads songs spanning six different albums like “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Road to Nowhere,” as well as music from five different Byrne solo albums.
Part of the joy of going to a live show is being able to focus on the bits you want to watch—say a particular performer, or maybe some interplay between band members happening off-center. Obviously, with a film you are limited to what the director chooses to focus on, and Spike Lee mainly opts to keep Byrne in frame (the smart choice), switching between tight, medium, and wide shots that show the full stage and all of the performers. He also offers other camera angles the paying audience would never have access to, such as some interesting overhead shots that show some of the band’s choreography. I never felt distracted by the cuts or camera selection and felt they did a good job of serving the show.
Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as the best concert film ever, with a lot of credit going to director Jonathan Demme, but I feel most of that film’s look, pacing, and style is really due to Byrne, who excruciatingly choreographed and stage directed everything, leaving Demme to just point cameras in the right direction and stay the hell out of the band’s way. Much the same can be said for Utopia, where Lee is just tasked with capturing Byrne’s vision and not calling attention to himself or pulling viewers out of Byrne’s performance. The fact that Sense is sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and Utopia is currently at 98% certainly speaks to the caliber of both.
Like with Sense, the Utopia performers don’t all take the stage at once. As Byrne described the gradual reveal of the band at the time of Sense‘s release, “If the curtain opened and everything was there, there’ll be nowhere to go. It tells the story of the band; it gets more dramatic and physical as it builds up.” The same is true here.
Except here we are able to better connect with the performers and truly see and appreciate everything they are doing. There are no cables, no gear, no big drum kits or other instruments, or wire tethering the performers to a single spot. Instead, they are all totally free and unencumbered to move about the stage. Some of the coordinated movements reminded me of stripped-down halftime marching band.
Byrne’s penchant for letting the music do the talking is also on display in the costuming, with all 12 band members identically clad in grey-suits, grey shirts, and no shoes (save for one who is discreetly wearing shoes designed to look like bare feet).
While the show is mostly one song flowing into another, there are little bits of non-sequitur dialogue Byrne uses to set up songs, such as how our brains lose connections as we grow from childhood or, prior to playing “I Should Watch TV,” how he used some of his original Talking Heads record contract money to purchase a Sony Triniton TV. There are also some semi-political jabs about immigrants, voter apathy, and Black Lives Matter, especially in the cover of the Janelle Monáe song “Hell You Talmbout,” which lists the names of various African-Americans who died as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, imploring listeners to say the names of the dead while images of the slain person held up by a family member are flashed on screen.
The stage is a simple grey square surrounded on three sides by silvery, vertical hanging fine metal chain that looks a bit like chainmail armor. The fine pattern in this chain produces a bit of line twitter and artifacting that is most visible on medium
range shots showing the back of the stage, potentially a limitation of the HD resolution. Still, image quality is generally quite good, letting you appreciate all of the facial detail of performers, which is the focus.
Instead of props and gimmicks, Byrne uses stage lighting to carefully highlight and frame the performers, using bright lights to reveal and shadows to conceal where you should focus your attention.
The audio presentation is very front-channel centric—primarily in the center but spread out across the left/right with just a bit of musical fill into the surrounds. Bass is not overwhelming, but your sub is called into action when appropriate. I’d say it is more of a restrained audio mix versus the big sound of a live show. Bass plucks and drum beats aren’t going to cave your chest in, and the music mixed into the surround speakers is so low as to be all but inaudible at a typical listening position. Surrounds are primarily used for crowd cheers, which get big and room-filling especially following one of the hit numbers. The mix is nice and clean, though, letting you hear all of the lyrics or focus on a particular instrument.
One of my favorite audio moments in the show is when the band plays “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).” Here, Byrne introduces the band members
as they start playing their instruments one at a time, letting you clearly hear how the song is assembled and appreciate that the band is actually producing all the sound you’re hearing. (This was also a highpoint for me from the live show.)
It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, and I’d say that if you liked the one, then you’ll definitely like the other. (With the converse also probably true. Don’t expect Utopia to make a concert lover out of you if watching live music performances isn’t your thing.) And if you regret missing out on your chance of seeing Sense live, Utopia is the closest you’ll get without finding a time machine. The staging, the stark set, the performances, and even some of the song selections all feel very reminiscent of Sense, but in a good way, reimagined for a new band and performance. We also have a Byrne who is nearly 40 years older and a fair bit less nimble, and of course no Jerry, Tina, and Chris, but that’s always a wish for another day.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.