David Byrne’s American Utopia

At the Movies Blog

David Byrne has really stopped making sense.

I had mixed feelings going into this. It was sort of a love/hate thing, because…I love David Byrne, but hate Spike Lee. Yet if Lee is just filming a concert, I’m fine with that. I loved what he did with Passing Strange by Stew (who is easily one of the most underrated songwriters around). 

The film is of Bryne’s Broadway show, which is based on his 2018 record American Utopia, which was pretty good. Now, you know how people say “the book was better” when a film is based on a novel? Well in this instance, the record was better. Now, it’s nice to see Byrne finally found a suit that fits him properly. And the backing band all had matching suits (must have been a disaster trying to get ready in the dressing room backstage). 

While Byrne’s sense of humor has always been welcome, in this show he got a bit preachy about lots of things. He talks about the importance of immigrants. He told a long story about getting people to vote. That was a misplaced rant, because I’m guessing 90% of all Talking Heads fans vote. And just as I thought when I worked at a hard rock radio station in the early ‘90s and there was a “Rock the Vote” campaign — if someone doesn’t vote, why try talking them into it? They obviously don’t care enough to get involved in the process, or learn about the candidates and issues. Now, when an image appeared on stage of Colin Kaepernick, and the entire band got down on a knee — that’s when I realized why Spike Lee had an interest in Byrne’s show.

It’s funny because while I hated Laura Ingraham telling Lebron James to “shut up and dribble,” I wouldn’t have minded her telling Byrne to shut up and sing. I support athletes who speak their mind, if they feel strongly about an issue. Yet, Michael Jordan was smart, replying when asked about why he didn’t get involved in activism — “Republicans buy shoes, too.” 

There’s nothing wrong with Lebron dribbling, shooting, rebounding, AND talking about police brutality. It’s just up to reporters like Ingraham to ask him why he doesn’t mind China and the slave labor that puts those Nike shoes together that pay him hundreds of millions.

But I wouldn’t want Lebron stopping a basketball game to preach to me. Let him do that from the locker room and in interviews. For example, in the Union-Tribune the morning I was writing this review, Jon Bon Jovi (who I’m not a fan of), said it perfectly. He goes to rallies and has long been a supporter of Democratic candidates and causes, but onstage he doesn’t promote his political beliefs because that’s not what the fans are there for.

And that’s what I’d prefer Byrne to do. I want to hear him sing Psycho Killer, not preach to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain, because he did do the Heads’ best song — This Must Be The Place [side note: find The Lumineers great acoustic version of that tune]. He also did another song from the Speaking in Tongues record — Burning Down The House. We’re also treated to Road to Nowhere, Slippery People, and Once in a Lifetime. Those tunes fit in nicely with the songs on American Utopia.

The choreographed routines were interesting to watch. Ellen Kuras’ camera work and Adam Gough’s editing deserve credit for putting this all together so seamlessly. Sure, it may have been minimalist aesthetics, but it kind of worked.

It had a communal vibe, that reminded me of when Paul Simon did Graceland, or The Doors drummer John Densmore did his jazzy stuff with Tribaljazz. Yet it’s hard not to think about how much more I enjoyed Jonathan Demmme’s Stop Making Sense.

Byrne threw some humor out, but my wife got the biggest laugh from me when she noted that the back-up singers “dance like they’re flight attendants doing the safety demonstration.”

This is strictly for hardcore David Byrne fans. Now, being 67-years-old, his voice and energy is tremendous. I was out of breath just getting up to turn off the TV after I watched it.2 stars out of 5, and you can catch this on HBO starting October 17th.

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