October 15, 2020

SCREEN | David Byrne Envisions An 'American Utopia' x TIFF 2020

"Same as it ever was!"
Spike Lee | David Byrne'sAmerican Utopia HBO | TIFF 2020
Toronto International Film Festival
Director Spike Lee translates a filmed version of musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's acclaimed Broadway stage show American Utopia based on his concert tour of the same name. Structured as a series of live song performances with one-man show interludes in between some of Byrne's greatest hits, the life-affirming musical is a testament to lyrical artistry and blending of storytelling mediums.

Lee's mastery of the screen makes this version of American Utopia feel both cinematic with dynamic shots choices and framing while also intimate in keeping with the open atmosphere of a big Broadway show. Mixed with standard elements from concert films like Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads masterpiece Stop Making Sense, its joyful construction feels just as theatrical as it is performative and musical.

In his four-month residency on Broadway, Byrne and company played not only tracks off his titular 2018 solo album but also songs from throughout his storied career reimagined for a contemporary twist. Framed as a series of intimate performances with Byrne's deadpan dialogue, the concert meets musical is a passionate call-to-action to rise up against the dystopic themes of complacency or monotony.

Spike Lee | David Byrne's American Utopia HBO | TIFF 2020 Participant / River Road Entertainment
Consisting sparsely of a grey background with curtains and starring an ensemble of sixteen musicians and vocalists in uniformly drab grey suits in barefoot, the offbeat but wholly American tale of culture stands out as a series of musical monologues on stage. Embracing a detailed minimalist production design, everything is produced to enhance the individual and cohesive nature of live performance.

David Byrne's joyful American Utopia is a euphoric theatrical experience on the screen with its propulsive blend of musicality, concert intimacy, and artful details. Lee's filmed version captures more than enough of the soulfully energizing immediacy and liveliness of the performances.

American Utopia screened both live and online as the opening film of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It airs on HBO and will be available to stream on Crave (and on HBO Max in the U.S.) starting October 17th.

More | YVArcade / AV Club / Indiewire / Polygon

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