Review: ‘American Utopia’ (2020, dir. Spike Lee) – London Film Festival

by Ruairí McCann

Stop Making Sense (1984) is a cornerstone in the intersection between pop music and cinema; a concert film in which one of the best bands of the fertile crescent that was the post-punk years is at their most ambitious, cohesive and passionate as a live act, captured intelligently by the great Jonathan Demme, also in his prime. In other words, it is a zenith that American Utopia could never be expected to reach. Yet the considerable pleasures of this  Spike Lee directed concert film of David Byrne’s eponymous 2019 Broadway show unfortunately come with some serious foibles.

The show was designed by Byrne and performed by him with a band of musicians-cum-dancers. Though both it and the film take their name from his 2018 solo album – which ranges from middling to good but never great – its tracks do not feature heavily. What is essentially a live gig, but with more theatrical choreography and Byrne giving mini monologues in between each number, takes 5 songs from that album and the remainder of its 21 song setlist from Byrne’s back catalogue, including Talking Heads hits such as “This Must Be The Place”, presented in a slightly lacklustre arrangement, as well as “I Zimbra”, “Once In A Lifetime” and “Road To Nowhere”, which are all as strong as ever. Other compositions from Byrne’s solo and collaborative work also make an appearance, such as  “I Should Watch TV” from his album with St. Vincent and “Lazy”, an X-Press house track on which he had a guest spot.

Lee directs with panache; sweeping back and forth across the stage with a crane and getting overhead shots to display the geometrics of the choreography. Mostly though the filmmaking consists of workman-like coverage, with the occasional honing in on individual performers and details—like bare feet. This singling out of performances, along with a faster cutting pace, creates a different simulated live experience than what Demme accomplished with his film, which  used longer takes to give the impression of a sustained performance. Lee’s less interested in immersion, to the film’s detriment, for the band’s energy is diluted in the translation to screen.

Though ultimately some of this languidness can be put down to the show itself, which on top of being steadily paced, is full of stops and starts. And Lee does attempt to incorporate some of the show’s qualities into his form. For instance, he includes a profusion of audience shots, which increases as the night rolls on. This is in tune with the sentiment behind Byrne’s conception of an ‘American Utopia’, on which he elaborated during  his festival screen talk. He stated that he did not want to give the impression that he believed his nation is currently a utopia, or ever will be. Instead it is an aspiration; a call for a more open-armed redraft of the American social contract. This finds its way into the stagecraft, which looks like an office plan that has been robbed of its furnishings and accoutrements; largely bare and empty save for Byrne and his compatriots in their grey suits, because, as he explains, that when we watch a movie or come to a show what we really want to see are people. They are all that matters, everything else is just clutter.

This very sketchy humanist sentiment finds its most explicit and disappointing outlet in his monologuing. It is transparent that Byrne has contracted Charlie Chaplin syndrome. He has realized that his country is in turmoil and recognised that by virtue of his stature and wealth he has a podium, which he has decided to speak from in clear and direct fashion, from the heart, to an extent that he has never reached for in his work before.  

The results are bromide after bromide. The repeated sounding off of a very pat, ‘we are all in this together’ liberalism. In this regard too, he plays all the hits, from a ‘the kids are alright’ style anecdote, about a school band covering “Everybody’s Coming To My House”,  to a ‘we are all immigrants’ declaration as he mentions his own Scottish background in relation to the multi-ethnic makeup of his band. He gives a not insincere but facile ‘I’m just an old white guy’ preface to a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmabout” and finally, and most extensively, pleas for everyone to register to vote—the film even ends with a title card in support of a voting rights activist organization.

The issue with such didacticism has less to do with finding holes to poke in the politics or suggesting that Byrne should have stayed the course as an ironist. Rather, as one of the most distinctive and original artists to appear in the last half century of popular culture, the expectation was that he would do something more creative with this change of priorities, instead of just spelling it out in such rote and patronizing terms.

It culminates in a finale where, during the Monae cover – which consists of the chanting of names of those who have been murdered by police – Lee intercuts with images of the deceased, including those who have been killed in the interim between the performance and the film’s production. Any sobering or stirring effect this sequence could have had is undercut when it is followed by the longest exposure to the crowd yet. An audience who are, as can be expected given the likely price range of a first run, high profile Broadway show, predominantly moneyed, middle-aged, or older, and white – thus not likely to have their voting rights curtailed, to boycott the booth out of any feelings of powerlessness, be oppressed by police, or at any point be jarred by Byrne’s rhetoric with its rounded off corners.

There is considerable appeal here, sourced in some brilliant music and Byrne’s skills as a showman, yet its effect and its political aims are reduced by a pandering and preaching to the choir.

Ruairí McCann  is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from  University College Dublin and Fim Studies (MA) from Queen’s University  Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written  for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.

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