David Byrne's American Utopia

David Byrne's American Utopia ★★★★

I’m guessing American Utopia is a five-star experience in person and a 4.5 one watching this film adaptation in a theater. Thankfully, it also lights up the room on a medium-sized flat screen with a so-so sound system. Utopia is damn irrepressible, and helped along by being a perfect antidote to these pandemic times. The cast bike ride through crowded New York streets over the end credits got me a little teary-eyed, even.

Credit to Spike Lee for creating a stage adaptation that is almost (I assume) wholly disparate from seeing Utopia live. The shots from above are formally beautiful, but it’s the camera swooping in and out of close proximity to the performers that really sell it.

This intimacy also highlights Byrne’s stiff and calculated performance style that has nagged at me since the Talking Heads’ heyday. The strict choreography of the show is very Byrne-ian and suits his frequent avant-garde posturing. He’s spoken about how uncomfortable he is interacting with people, even hinting that he might have a mild form of Asperger’s. So we should be grateful he’s on stage at all, however controlled the performances.

But this also creates an emotional distance. The anarchy of his backing Talking Heads’ bands often bridged this chasm on stage, and, if anything, Stop Making Sense was the Heads at their most modulated. But here, Byrne is fully in control and while the activist spirit of American Utopia is timely, I couldn’t help feel it was a little too choreographed and at odds with the emotional release it was trying to evoke.

Still, it’s the best medicine for melancholy one could ask for right now...

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