Nothing matches the communal euphoria of going to a concert. With live entertainment on pause for the seventh straight month, it's hard to imagine an at-home experience coming close to the feeling of vibing to the live sound of our favorite band. Enter Spike Lee and David Byrne's American Utopia on HBO, and thank goodness.
Concert films aren't new of course, but this is a very special one. Filmed in Januray during the production's limited Broadway run, David Byrne's American Utopia is the latest example of live theatre brought into our homes (after Disney+'s Hamilton and Amazon's What the Constitution Means to Me). Filled with songs from Byrne's solo catalog as well as his beloved band the Talking Heads, Byrne is backed onstage by an awe-inspiring collection of musicians and backup dancers, presenting a one-of-a-kind event filtered through Byrne's famously eccentric perspective. More than a concert, it's a statement on the human experience, a jam-session assemblage of loosely tied ideas about the big and small anxieties of living in the here and now.
As much as Byrne's not-easily-described piece was more than a night at the theatre, Lee's film also defies simple categorization. It's more of a hybrid of concert, abstract theatre, and unbridled cinema — the kind we haven't seen since… well, since the Talking Heads' definitive 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, made with director Jonathan Demme. That film's fans will be especially happy, given the amount of ebullient visuals and Byrne-ian oddball choreography on display in American Utopia, all emanating from Byrne's unpredictable ingenuity that's always one step ahead of our mere mortal brains. Demme, future Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, lent his distinct style to Stop Making Sense, and similarly, American Utopia is also a creative meeting of the minds between Byrne and Lee's creative points of view. In many respects, this film is a worthy companion to that pinnacle of the concert movie genre, but in even more ways, it proves to be its own kind of transformative and ecstatic creature.
It's the way that Lee captures the evening that reminds us what it's like to experience concerts in the flesh, even from the trapped comfort of our sofas (though good luck sitting still while such bangers as "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime" are given fresh treatment). There's something about even the best filmed theatre that struggles to capture the live excitement of the moment, how it feels to be in that audience. Lee ircumvents this by making the film immersive, placing us onstage and in the audience, giving us views that physically couldn't have been experienced in person. Instead of presenting us with the spectacle, Lee and Byrne invite us into it; simply watching American Utopia feels movingly participatory.
That sense of a fourth wall being shattered is completely purposeful, as American Utopia is ultimately about collective togetherness. Not only is the film punctuated with Byrne's musings on the joyful agony of what it means to be a person, but also what it means to be a community, reflected in the way he incorporates his band into the experience. Before performing "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)", Byrne introduces each member — including a nod to their hometowns, all across the globe — as they play a stitch of the melody, until it forms the whole fabric of sound before our eyes and ears. It may sound like a simplistic way to translate an "everyone's contribution matters to the whole" philosophy, but it's an effective one, especially as this multi-hyphenate ensemble work their asses off for the music.
At the center, Byrne presents himself not as the great creator of the spectacle, but as someone in search of even deeper self-awareness of how he can continue to see the world differently. He prefaces "Everybody's Coming to My House" by describing it a song that initially sounded resistant in his voice; the idea of people not leaving him alone was bleak. Yet hearing a Detroit school perform the song changed his perspective on its potential meaning. "Their version seems to be about welcome, inviting everyone over, inclusion," he states, "I kinda liked their version better." In that spirit, American Utopia embraces the possibility that we all might see our world a little bit differently.
In the film's most emotional sequence, and the one that best sells the illusion that we're a part of the show we're watching, Byrne borrows Janelle Monáe's protest anthem "Hell You Talmbout," leading the audience to join in proclaiming the names of many Black American victims of police and racist violence. Lee transforms the number into something even more powerful, delivering a gut-punch of urgency by featuring portraits of the slain, held by their loved ones, as their names are called. He ends the sequence commemorating George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery onscreen, underlining the fact that our violent past contunes in our present. That magic that Spike Lee conjures to make us feel like we are in that theatre while also delivering something richly cinematic? It's never more visceral than in this moment.
As the film progresses, its existential layers deepen, viewing our current anxieties through holistic eyes. By the time David Byrne's American Utopia reaches its optimistic a capella finale with "One Fine Day," don't be surprised if, like me, you find yourself a weepy puddle of mush; that is, until the "Road to Nowhere" curtain call sends you into the giddy stratosphere. You may even forget to be terrified at the sight of a packed crowd, because this night is pure bliss.
American Utopia premieres on HBO October 17th at 8:00 PM ET.
Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.