Film Reviews

David Byrne’s American Utopia

Published November 20, 2020
David Byrne's barefoot orchestra

In the liner notes to his 2018 album, American Utopia, David Byrne reflects on the title. “Is this meant ironically? It is a joke? Do I mean this seriously? Am I referring to the past or the future? Is it personal or political?”

These questions, which echo the lists of questions in wellknown songs such as Once in a Lifetime (And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?), are answered both in the words and the music. Byrne disavows an ironic intention although coming from him this is a little hard to accept. The American “utopia” refers to both past and future: from the great – albeit flawed – dream of the Founding Fathers that still fuels the myth of national exceptionalism, to the hopes of a new generation for a better, fairer society.

David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, is a live recording of a 2020 Broadway show that features Byrne and 11 musicians performing songs drawn from the singer’s solo career and his years with the band, Talking Heads. It’s a remarkable spectacle, not just for its innovative stagecraft and choreography but because each number seems to address issues that relate to the very texture of contemporary American society.

This may sound dogmatic but Byrne’s ear for rhythm gives this concert an exhilarating, celebratory thrust. I was primed by having seen Byrne and St. Vincent performing at the State Theatre in 2013. Although temperamentally unsuited to rock concerts I was bowled over by the precision of planning and execution that had gone into the show.

American Utopia takes that planning to new levels. Byrne and a multicultural group of musicians wear identical grey business suits but perform bare foot. Everyone carries their instruments, even the drummers and keyboard player, dancing and parading in movements mapped out by choreographer, Annie-B Parson.

At the age of 68 Byrne is by far the oldest figure on stage but remains impressively agile. He is very much the master of ceremonies, using the breaks between songs to make asides and allude to topical issues, even encourage audiences to register to vote at the forthcoming elections.

From his first appearance with Talking Heads Byrne has never been your standard rock and roll musician. When Psycho Killer hit the airwaves back in 1978, it was like nothing we’d ever heard. The first shock of punk rock had passed and the New Wave was tossing up all kinds of strange offshoots but Talking Heads was a unique phenomenon. The music was rhythmic and quirky, the lyrics undeniably idiosyncratic. Why, for instance, was much of Psycho Killer in French?

Talking Heads’ sound continued to evolve from album to album, drawing on a bewildering range of musical influences, until the group drifted apart at the end of 1991. Byrne’s subsequent career has produced 10 solo albums, collaborations with figures such as Brian Eno and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, and even a “disco opera” about Imelda Marcos, co-written with Fat Boy Slim. He has worked in film and multi-media, published anthologies of his drawings, a manifesto for cycling; and in 2012, a book called How Music Works, which blends autobiography and musical theory.

Despite this non-stop activity American Utopia was Byrne’s first genuine solo album since 2004. It took a critical overview of the changing dimensions of American life, ending with the songs, Everybody’s Coming to My House – a celebration of a multiracial, multicultural state, and Here – with its querulous lyric that asks us to work through the media overload and find what is true and important.

Here, too many sounds for your brain to comprehend

Here the sound gets organised into things that make some sense

Here there is something we call elucidation

Is it the truth or merely a description?

Here is the last item on the album but the first in the film. It introduces this concert as an attempt at “elucidation”, using each song as a social and cultural commentary. One of the most surprising is Don’t Worry About the Government, from the first Talking Heads album in 1977. In those days Jimmy Carter had just become President and America was looking to reset its values after the Nixon era.

In 1977 the song was a whimsical reassurance that no matter who was in the White House people remain fixated on personal matters – where they live and work, their families and friends. In 2020 the song has a different inflection, with that complacent self-obsession and fundamental trust in government having been shattered by the polarizing hostilities of the Trump adminstration. Those who might live happily in a nice building and let the world drift by, now have an obligation to exercise their responsibilities as citizens or risk losing the lot.

Almost every song could be interrogated in this manner and related back to the precarious state of American society, usually from an oblique angle. Byrne’s most overt political gesture is a cover version of Janelle Monáe Robinson’s percussive anthem, Hell You Talmbout, in which performers shout out the names of men and women of colour who have died at the hands of the police.

For Byrne one of the most pressing problems is to strike a balance between the personal and the political. He may be an advocate of citizens’ participation but shuns party politics in favour of more sweeping ethical stances. In introducing Everybody’s Coming to My House, with its wholesome message in the style of We are the World or Happy Christmas (War is Over), he mentions how the Detroit School of Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble has recorded a version of the song that sounds genuinely welcoming. His personal take, he confesses, was to feel there were a lot of people he wouldn’t want to see in his house. He takes this to mean that he has room for improvment.

For all of its complexity American Utopia is more  bacchanal than sermon. We can appreciate the quality of the performance even as the songs nibble at the corners of our social conscience. Songs which date back 30 or 40 years seem freshly relevant today, while more recent ones such as One Fine Day (2009) – I complete my tasks one by one/ I remove my masks when I am done – are almost eerily of-the-moment.

Byrne’s message, performed rather than spelled out, is that a better world is within our grasp if we ask the right questions and match actions to beliefs. The first American utopia, as envisaged by men of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, was born of a powerful idealism. For Americans to overcome their cynicism and dream of a new utopia is the first step towards healing a broken nation.




David Byrne’s American Utopia

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring David Byrne and his musicians

USA, unclassified, 105 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 November, 2020