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Making sense with David Byrne

His ‘American Utopia,’ filmed by Spike Lee, comes to HBO

David Byrne (left) and Spike Lee.
David Byrne (left) and Spike Lee.David Lee/HBO

You could get dizzy trying to keep track of the creative directions David Byrne has set out on and succeeded in. His newest project is the concert film “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” which was directed by Spike Lee. It premieres on HBO Oct. 17.

Byrne, 68, has been a singer-songwriter, guitarist, performance artist, painter, photographer, author, music video director, film and theatrical composer, feature film director … and for a decade and a half (1975-1991) he fronted a little band called Talking Heads. Byrne’s time making music videos and the eye-widening experience of working with Jonathan Demme, who directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” led him to direct and act in his own music-fueled feature film, “True Stories” (1986). Alas, a planned second film, a collaboration with Robert Wilson on his stage production “The Forest,” never happened.

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But there was a steady post-Talking Heads output of solo and collaborative albums (he worked with, among others, Brian Eno and St. Vincent). Oddly, 14 years went by between the solo records “Grown Backwards” (2004) and “American Utopia” (2018). Then Byrne got the idea to mix together some of the optimistic messages and a bit of darkness from that newest album with poppy and socially conscious tunes from his earlier catalog, have it staged and choreographed, then take it on tour. After a Boston run last fall, it spent four months on Broadway.

Byrne, 68, recently chatted via Zoom from his Manhattan apartment about his career and how it led to “American Utopia.”

David Byrne in "David Byrne's American Utopia."
David Byrne in "David Byrne's American Utopia."David Lee/HBO

Q. What came first — a desire to play music or make fine art?

A. In the late ’60s, I was teaching myself guitar, sitting in my bedroom, learning from songbooks. And simultaneously I was doing art. I’d be copying psychedelic posters, making my own little comic books. I thought that to have a career as a musician-performer, was really beyond anything I could imagine. I knew I could still enjoy making music with friends. but as a career, I thought I’d focus on fine arts.

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Q. But Talking Heads happened, and caught on, and fine arts got moved to the back burner, until you started making music videos.

A. That’s right. A few years after Talking Heads began, MTV started as a cable network. Well, most people did not have cable at home in those days. Cable was kind of a luxury thing. But bars had cable, so you’d go to a bar and have drinks with friends, and you’d see all the latest music videos on the TV screens there. I realized that if I could do some videos, it would be a way for me to jump back into some visual arts stuff, and possibly have it be useful for the band.

Q. The first Talking Heads video I recall seeing was “Once in a Lifetime.” You made that with Toni Basil, right?

A. Yes, she choreographed it, and we co-directed it. She was super helpful [in teaching me]. I watched her edit some stuff that she was doing, and I thought, “Oh, OK, here’s how you do this. Here’s how you do the edit on the ¾-inch video tapes" [laughs]. At that time MTV was desperate for content, and would play pretty much anything. The radio really wasn’t playing “Once in a Lifetime,” but MTV was … and that helped break the song.

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Q. You moved on to directing videos yourself, but opted not to do it when you had the idea to film the Talking Heads “Speaking in Tongues” tour, which evolved into “Stop Making Sense.”

David Byrne in "Stop Making Sense," Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film.
David Byrne in "Stop Making Sense," Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film.Harvard Film Archive

A. I realized that the show could be a film. It had a beginning and a middle and an end. It wasn’t just a bunch of songs strung together, it actually took you on a journey ... and it had a lot of songs. A friend of a friend introduced me to Jonathan Demme. This was before “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia.” I had seen “Melvin and Howard,” and loved that. So, I approached him. He was a big music fan, and he was very excited. Then we had to find the money, but because we had a real director onboard, and because Talking Heads was fairly successful at that time, Warner Records put up some money to shoot it.

Q. So 35 years goes by before you’re involved with another concert film, “American Utopia.” How did that come about?

A. We were touring the “American Utopia” album. I didn’t have the idea for a film at the beginning of the tour, but part-way into it, I realized this could work as a film. It also has a beginning and a middle and an end. When it was still a concert tour, I started reaching out to different directors.

Q. Was the concert tour very different from the show that ended up on Broadway and eventually filmed?

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A. Yes. About a year ago, we came to Boston for 2½ weeks for the tryouts, to work out the various details and adjustments that would end up in the Broadway version, and there was constant change. Boston theatrical audiences would be used to seeing shows where parts are changing, so that what you see today might not be what you see tomorrow. We changed the ending about four times. We cut a few numbers. I was constantly revising the things I would say in between the songs. But at some point in Boston we said, “OK, this is it, we’re going to lock it in.” And that was when I reached out to Spike Lee.

Q. Why Spike Lee?

A. I knew him, our paths had crossed, and I thought, with all the issues we deal with, with the kind of ensemble piece that it is, he might get this. And he did. He came up to Boston and saw two of the shows on a Saturday. And when we opened on Broadway, he saw it about seven more times.

Q. You created the show, but Spike created the film. Did he make a lot of changes to the production?

A. Well, I asked him at one point if there were any numbers he thought we should cut for the film. He said, “No, it’s working as it is.” But he did come to me and say he wanted to bring in some family members of [Black] people who were murdered; he wanted them to see the show. So, in the back of his mind, Spike was probably thinking he wanted to integrate these people into the show, when we do the Janelle Monáe song “Hell You Talmbout,” which he did.

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"David Byrne's Utopia."
"David Byrne's Utopia."David Lee/HBO

Q. Spike also added his own stamp near the end of the film, with his trademark double dolly shots of you and the cast riding bikes in New York.

A. Yeah, there were all these shots he wanted to get of us on bikes riding through Manhattan [laughs]. There were little cameras on the bikes, there was a car following us, there was a bike in front of us that was filming backwards. There was all kinds of stuff going on.

Q. “American Utopia” closed on Broadway last February and was supposed to return there this fall, but the pandemic put an end to that. What are the future plans for it?

A. Nobody knows anything for certain right now, but we’re aiming for next September.

Interview has been edited and condensed. “David Byrne’s American Utopia” premieres on HBO Oct. 17 at 8 p.m.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.