American Utopia begins where David Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name ended: with the song “Here.” “Here is an area of great confusion,” the former Talking Heads singer declares from a steel-gray, uncluttered stage, a model brain aloft in his hand. He points to another region on the brain: “Here is a connection with the opposite side.”
Connection — and not only between opposites, but in the manner of a neural network or, to make the obvious but still valuable analogy, a world community — is the guiding element, maybe even artistic theology, of American Utopia. A filmed version of the hit Broadway show that ran from October 2019 to February 2020 (and begins streaming on HBO Max October 17th), it’s a time capsule with a timely end-date for a project that finds unity where many of us might only see difference and disruption. Byrne isn’t alone up there, of course. There’s also director Spike Lee, who, as he did adapting the rock-musical Passing Strange into a movie in 2009, is more than just wingman-ing here. Like the late Jonathan Demme, director of Stop Making Sense, Lee is here not just to document but to heighten. There are close-ups on Byrne’s face, his eyes, even his feet; dynamic roving views from onstage and off; a keen awareness of the audience. And, of course, there’s the thrill of seeing people standing up in their seats, clapping along, silhouetted against Byrne’s bright, inviting presence onstage. All of it lends a sense of alive-ness to this live performance.
It helps that Byrne is joined by a crew of 11 musician-costars who are just as intriguing to watch as he is, everyone doing double duty, everyone barefoot in matching gray suits (though not oversized, à la Byrne’s iconic look in Demme’s movie). They dance while they sing, prowl and perform and constantly restage themselves across the steel-colored, minimally decorated box of the Hudson Theater’s stage. One second they’re a loose collective, everyone facing different directions, together but apart; the next they’re like a marching rhythm section.
“Utopia” is accurate, as titles go. Yes, Byrne is the lead singer. But despite being unaffiliated with a band, he’s never come off as a “solo artist” in the literal sense. The proceedings here are far less interested in Byrne alone than in the former Talking Heads singer as the emcee of a party to which all of us are invited. The musicians onstage, in keeping with the theme, are from around the world: France, Brazil, Canada. Byrne himself was born in Scotland. And in one of the many comfortably talkative monologues he delivers between songs, he says, in that assured but invitingly casual warble of his: “Most of us are immigrants.”
It’s a point more interestingly made by the pure spectacle of it all, which wears its influences as comfortably as Byrne’s music ever did. Seeing the entire crew kneel onstage, backdropped by a photo of Colin Kaepernick, is effecting. But even that can’t match the power of the group covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a powerful protest anthem which, in this updated rendition, climaxes with the entire group shouting Freddie Gray’s name.
It goes without saying that Byrne, a consummate entertainer, also plays a few hits: “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime” — he knows what we want to hear. But he’s also trying, however gently, to push us. His monologues never amount to the monotonous good feelings more suited for Ted Talks and Apple product launches. He’s wider-ranging. Hugo Ball and Dadaist ethics, police brutality, the Sony Triniton television that Byrne bought with his first recording contract — they’re all related, and even if they weren’t, it’s his job to make the connections. Your job is to relax and enjoy it. Clap along. Connect with each other, and with yourself. As Byrne seems to say, we owe ourselves that much.