LFF 2020 ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ Review: Looking at Other Humans and Actually Seeing Them

Musician, artist and Talking Heads Frontman David Byrne takes to the stage to perform old hits, new compositions and guide a captive audience through a mediation on American society, identity and humanity.

This is a film of two men; artist and subject David Byrne and director-producer Spike Lee. Byrne has designed a fascinating stage show and musical experience. With minimal set design and intricate choreography and lighting he brings his stage to life and delivers an engaging and exciting show.

Byrnes band are also exceptionally talented, performing studio quality music whilst participating in Byrne’s expressive and playful dancing. All of these disparate talents and sounds are united by Byrne’s fantastic voice. The opening sequence sees him singing to a model of a brain. His natural delivery and startling vocal ability are compelling to behold.

Spike Lee’s direction is what makes this a fantastic concert film. His camera is intimate, boundless and cinematic. We never feel we are simply watching footage from a concert that would be fun to attend, but instead this is a film with an audience. He not only brings the footage to vivid life but also captures the audience’s excitement and wonder with very few individual crowd shots. He knows exactly when to be creative and when to be subdued. Lee’s direction doesn’t just compensate for the separation between the cinema audience and the live experience, it eliminates it.

This year the press screenings for the London Film Festival are being held online. This has certainly allowed me to fit more of them in to my hectic life but there are several films that really make me regret not being able to see them as intended; projected on to a big screen in front of a room of people, beneath an astounding sound system. Home theatres may be more sophisticated and widely available but films like this will always make you long for the cinema.

The film talks generally about the modern condition and disconnection between people but it also tackles bigger issues. Voter apathy and, in the most thrilling sequence that truly sees Spike and Byrne collaborate, he performs a protest song by Janelle Monae about black lives taken by police action. It’s a truly wonderful moment. The film represents voices uniting.

Spike Lee and David Byrne have collaborated perfectly to create a unique concert movie experience that is thrilling and inventive. The music, the staging and the camera all work in perfect harmony to realise a vision of modern American life that is quirky and just a little tragic. Most impressively it’s a testament to the universal power of music and its continued importance.

Five Stars

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