Concert films can make for oddly mixed viewing. The best ones function as cultural snapshots; the rest often function as a combined historical record and facsimile of a live experience most of its audience will never get firsthand. In the context of the new film David Byrne’s American Utopia, the mind goes straight to Jonathan Demme’s gold-standard Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense, but there are others – The Last Waltz, A Poem is a Naked Person and Amazing Grace also stand out as illustrations of artists at a particular place in time. It’s rare, almost impossible, however, to capture the live energy of a show on film. Experiencing that vibe is even harder if you’re viewing it on a TV in your living room.
All this is to say that Spike Lee’s film of Byrne’s American Utopia show, which ran on Broadway from October 2019 to February of this year, is a bittersweet document and a sometimes distant viewing experience. The feeling of nostalgia for an extremely recent past is particularly strong in a moment when going to a concert with friends feels like a vague memory. When Byrne tells his audience “Thank you for leaving your homes” near the beginning of the show, it’s hard not to let out a rueful laugh.
Like Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a stripped-down affair. The production design is spartan. A chain curtain closes the stage into a square, and Byrne and his diverse 11-piece band all wear identical gray suits. This is intended to cut back anything that distracts the audience from direct connection with the folks onstage (“Us and you. That’s what the show is,” Byrne says plainly). It definitely works – with a lack of other stimuli, it’s easier to focus on the music, composed mainly of songs from Byrne’s 2018 American Utopia album as well as ones with other collaborators and the Talking Heads discography. It also brings focus to the joyful energy of the performers.
As director, Lee has a strong sense of how to make the camera’s interactions with the performance onstage something more than a straightforward landscape. There are aerial shots that detail complex choreography from an angle no one in the theater would see. He follows performers’ individual gestures, group movements, and sometimes props to create a sense of momentum.
While American Utopia is a strong example of how to capture a live performance, there are hints that it could become something more. This is especially evident during a riveting performance of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” in which Lee intercuts images of the Black lives lost to racism and police brutality whose names the song calls out. There are loose connective threads throughout that allude to Byrne’s making art out of a desire to understand humanity, but those moments of interaction with the audience are brief, and they never quite feel like a cohesive journey.
American Utopia occasionally hints at transcendance, but at heart it’s still a concert film. It presents a historical document of a recent past, when we could still leave our homes for things like Broadway shows or concerts. The film flirts with the sense of distinct perspective that A Poem is a Naked Person or Amazing Grace tackle head-on, but ultimately its interests are (understandably) in depicting a cultural event. While Lee is good at making the experience feel unique, even he can’t precisely replicate the feel of a room. That unavoidable feeling of remove is strengthened by the knowledge that it may be a long time until we can feel something like it again.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” debuts Saturday on HBO.