For a stretch of 121 shows on Broadway from October last year to February this year, David Byrne played out his vision for creating a better US of A — one based on action, connection and a whole of percussion. And then Spike Lee captured it on film, as David Byrne’s American Utopia, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend. At the fest, which has gone digital this year, the former Talking Heads frontman and the Oscar-winning director gave the film a special introduction, both beaming in from their respective parts of New York.
“David didn’t hire me to just record his show,” chuckled Lee. “It wasn’t just ‘shoot the show.’” Added Byrne: ”I could have hired any company to do that,” Instead, Lee worked with Byrne to create specific shots and angles that would make his camera a participant in it all— part of Annie B Parsons’ hand-and-feet-shaped choreography — and bring the filmmaker’s vibrant touch to the production. In American Utopia, which airs on HBO and HBO Max from October 17th, Lee captures a barefoot Byrne as travels through familiar Talking Heads classics and his 2018 solo album of the same name — all on a unadorned stage, while dressed in a grey suit, and accompanied by 11 musicians who hold their instruments while playing them.
There is a strong political urgency about the narrative that runs through the show. “At some point I felt that our country here, and lots of other countries, are in danger of rupturing — of being divided, becoming too antagonistic, not being able to work together. We’re really getting to a difficult place,” said Byrne, who began working on the production in response to Donald Trump becoming president and the events that have followed.
“It became my obligation, my duty as a citizen, to engage and to respond. I thought, ‘I can’t just be an entertainer now,’ I need to respond to what’s happening. We can’t ignore this anymore. We can’t just go out and have fun. We have to respond, and we can do that in the show, in a way that’s not preachy and not telling people what to think.” Byrne says he worked hard on the show’s tone and it does manage to indeed balance pockets of despair with great hope.
To help him, Byrne invited Lee out to see it when the show was first staged in Boston. For his previous concert film, as part of the Talking Heads in 1984’s Stop Making Sense, Byrne worked with the late Jonathan Demme. Now he looked to another famed New Yorker. “We’re from the same era,” Lee said. “Way back when art, music and independent film were big in New York. When young artists could afford to live in New York City. I knew I’d be working with him sooner or later.” Byrne, who remembers watching Lee’s debut film, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, piqued Lee’s interest in his new project so much that Lee saw two shows — the matinee and then the evening one — before flying back to New York.
“From the get go, I knew I wanted to be part of this,” said Lee. “The music, the narrative, the choreography — it’s got everything I love.” Part of that includes a standout moment where Byrne sings the lines “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” on the track “I Should Watch TV,” as an image of Colin Kaepernick is projected behind him. It’s followed by a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” — a striking roll call of the Black people who have been killed by law enforcement; a rhythmic chant that recalls names like Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor.
Lee believes the song’s lyrics are simple but powerful. “This phrase has become also like a slogan: Say their names. Let’s not forget these individuals who are no longer here. They’re not with us physically anymore but they are still here spiritually. Their loved ones will never see them again. Let their murders not be in vain.” For Byrne, it touches a basic human emotion. “It’s a political song that is also incredibly emotional. It asks you to remember these people as people — as human beings who lived on this earth, to not to forget them. It’s not dictating policy or partisan politics. The way this communicates these wrongs though song is one of the best ways I’ve heard of in years.” Lee, who would try see the show every week of its run, said he’d check in with Byrne each time: “‘Have you heard about this person who got murdered?’ It never stopped!”
The singers and musicians who join Byrne on stage are from around the US and the world — something Byrne, himself a naturalized citizen who came over from Scotland, points out with great pride. “I want someone watching to have that feeling of ‘yes, we can do this. We can pull together. We’re going to vote. We have a lot to do, but we can do it. What you see in the film is people working together, so hopefully others will see that and say, ‘yes, we can do that too.’”