David Byrne’s American Utopia

By Joanna Langfield

A gift that keeps on giving, this filmed version of the Broadway smash couldn’t hit home screens at a better time.

When I saw the stage version of this mashup of soul, societal perception and stompin’ songs, we left the theater on a rapturous high, exhilarated (ah, remember being exhilarated?). So, I was more than curious to see how Spike Lee would adapt the unique experience for the screen. And boy am I happy to report he’s brought just the right touch of magic, bringing a few extra Spike-isms, as well as cameras, along for the ride so we can not just see Byrne and his merry band of extraordinary performers from the proscenium, but from the side and, occasionally, above. Close ups give us a different intimacy than the one we may have experienced just rows away, as the players sing, play acoustic instruments and dance barefoot through a beautifully thought out program of where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re going.

Byrne’s work has always, to me, been fascinating in that most of it has often been just a little bit “off”, rock and roll with a decidedly modern twist that commands attention. His earlier filmed concert, the sublime Stop Making Sense, set a new bar for these kinds of things. And now, into his 60’s, the artist has not stopped pushing his own envelope. Here, it’s with a combination of his own work as well as a stunning cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout”, made even more gut wrenching thanks to Lee’s posting pictures of men and women for whom we must say their name. But don’t fear the reaper, there are many moments of joy and irresistible charm, especially from Byrne, who is just so winning here you’ll, if you’re like me, be singing along with the terrific show, even in your sleep.