Uplift is scarce these days, particularly the hard-won uplift of art that speaks of hope with unblinking eyes and without cheap sentimentality. “David Byrne’s American Utopia” isn’t without irony, of course; that often-comic quality is essential to the former Talking Heads singer-songwriter’s language and his physical and vocal delivery. But the worldview in his work is deeply compassionate, self-aware, awed, and, at times, sweetly innocent, all in the face of doom. Set to music that slides from world rhythms to “new wave” rock to something akin to lullaby, Byrne’s songs offer rousing and thought-provoking relief.
The latest iteration of “American Utopia” is a Spike Lee-directed film of the Broadway production (which was preceded by an album of the same title), and it’s a pure pleasure. The show is not a collection of Byrne songs hammered into a story line, which would likely be absurd in a bad way. You know, naive young man comes to the city, is spiritually lost then found, winds up with “little creatures” and a “happy day.” Instead, it is a celebration of Byrne’s music at this dire moment in time, performed brilliantly and punctuated by Byrne’s concise anecdotes, asides, and philosophical comments. Therefore Lee focuses on delivering to us the live concert-style show in all its vitality and dimension, in the way director Jonathan Demme so effectively captured the Heads in 1984′s “Stop Making Sense.”
Watching the movie, which premieres on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m. and streams on HBO Max the same day, I wanted to be there in the theater, dancing and feeling the room shake with energy. But I knew I was getting the next best thing, a slightly more intimate version that includes strategic zoom-ins and valuable views from the back of the stage looking out and from the ceiling. Wisely, Lee lets the material and the kinetic performances speak for themselves, with no gratuitous audience shots and only rare enhancements. In one powerful sequence, as Byrne and company sing Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” the band shouts out the names of Black men and women violently killed by police violence or in hate crimes (from Sandra Bland to Emmett Till), and Lee gives us photographs of those who died — in some cases held by a family member. It seems to pull everyone in that hall — and at home, watching on TV — together. It’s one of the night’s many peaks.
The show is a musical wonder, as the songs toggle between Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo career, between the tenderness of “This Must Be the Place” (“You’ve got a face with a view”) and the government upheaval of “Born Under Punches” (with its resonant “All I want is to breathe”). The songs are the thing, old and new ones equally transporting, their clarity as rich as their mystery.
But one of its best charms is the choreography (by Annie-B Parson) — thus Lee’s shots from above, giving us a special perspective on the formations and crisscrosses. Byrne, a pair of backup-singer-dancers, and the band — including a keyboard player and percussionists wearing their instruments in harnesses — are all almost always in some kind of motion, most of it synchronous. As they hit their marks with seeming spontaneity, while marching, or dancing, or skipping, or, in the final song, “Road to Nowhere,” parading through the ecstatic theater audience, they form a visually arresting troupe. Wearing the same gray suits, all barefoot, Byrne and Co. are like agents of transitory triumph. And Lee takes us right up into their expressions, so we can take in their joy, which is abundant.
Byrne presides over the show as an elder statesman of rock, and of life, and he projects a warmth that hasn’t always made it through his minimalist approach. He still has a nerdy neurotic vibe, jerking across the stage to the strains of “Once in a Lifetime,” but he speaks directly and sincerely to the audience, aware that they embrace his ever-questioning soul, his childlike perceptions, and his global ideals. Across the night, he talks about low voter turnout, especially among young people, and he shares James Baldwin’s optimism about America despite the writer’s experience of "lifelong oppression and discrimination.” He both celebrates the innocence of infancy and grieves its end, finding bright possibility in us as works in progress; “We’re not fixed,” he says with his familiar use of double meaning.
But Byrne is never the lecturer, or the teacher; only the host. He’s clear on the importance of his relationship with the audience. “Who we are, is thankfully not just here,” he says toward the end of the show, pointing to his head, “but it extends beyond ourselves, to the connections between all of us.”
DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, streams Saturday on HBO Max
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.