London Film Festival 2020: David Byrne’s American Utopia Review

This will be the last review that I do for films I saw as part of the 2020 London Film Festival and I was lucky that I was able to see this one in the cinema. I was intrigued to see this, firstly because I’m a fan of David Byrne, but mainly because it’s a collaboration between Byrne and Spike Lee. The two of them have very distinct voices and I was fascinated to see how they would work with each other and, after seeing the film, Byrne and Lee working together is a perfect match.

The film is a recorded version of Byrne’s American Utopia Broadway, comprising a mix of songs from the American Utopia album and earlier songs from both Byrne’s solo career and his time in Talking Heads. In between the songs, Byrne talks about philosophy and the nature of life today, and it’s in these sections that Byrne’s ethos behind the show comes in, exploring the connections we have both within ourselves (exemplified by Byrne holding a brain model at the start of the show) and with the wider world. Every part of this element of the film is well executed, Byrne taking a bit of a self-depricating approach to his delivery, creating some good comedic moments in between the weight of what he’s saying. These moments let us understand the vision of the world Byrne has and creates an overall powerful and joyous expression of identity.

The way the music is presented as well adds to the power of the film. Firstly going into the music itself, Byrne has been very careful about the music choices in the show, choosing ones with good thematic links to each other, even using other artists to express his views, including setting music to a Dadaist poem and covering Janelle Monae. All of the music flows brilliantly and creates this great atmosphere to the film. It also helps that, whenever he’s singing, Byrne commands the stage and creates this atmosphere through his presence. However, Byrne does not completely overtake the show, giving time for the other members of the band to shine, with the multicultural nature of the band adding to the overall philosophy of the show.

The staging meanwhile is exceptional. For the show the stage is pretty much bare. There are some chain style decorations, but there are no instruments or equipment on stage, these being attached to the band members. This frees up the band to move around and helps to create a vibrant and kinetic show, every movement being carefully choreographed to fit the tone Byrne is going for.

Then we get to Spike Lee’s direction and Ellen Kuras’ cinematography. Every frame of the film has been carefully chosen to create the most immersive experience possible, using angles that cannot be seen just looking at the stage to highlight the movement and the lighting. This is aided by Adam Gough’s editing which, again, creates this kinetic feel to the show. Near the end of the show meanwhile, there are flourishes that feel quintessentially Spike Lee. Given the nature of the show, some of the more notable features of Lee’s directorial style cannot come through, but when the political elements of the film come in, Lee goes all in with the symbolism of the show and adding features that would not have been present on stage.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is a perfect collaboration between the unique artistic voices of David Byrne and Spike Lee. What they create here is a powerful, kinetic show that says a lot about the nature of the world and our connections to it and ends up being one of the most joyous and electrifying cinema experiences of the year.

My Rating: 5/5

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