David Byrne’s American Utopia: Spike Lee’s once-in-a-lifetime concert movie


American Utopia (M, 105 mins) Directed by Spike Lee *****

I can’t stand David Byrne. I love David Byrne.

I can’t stand his control, his poise, his sheer nerdishness, the air of remove and effete intellectualism that he allows to colour so much of his image. I can’t stand his insistence on uniformity of movement, his removal of everything haphazard and accidental from his stage shows. And, I definitely can’t stand the way he still mines the Talking Heads back-catalogue, even though he dismisses the idea of a reunion with his greatest collaborators as “a nostalgia exercise”.

I can’t even stand the fact that I’ve never seen a photo of Byrne looking anything other than freshly shaven and cleanly dressed. Whatever that says, it is pretty much the opposite of whatever it is we mean, when we say “rock ‘n’ roll”.

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And yet, for well over 30 years now, I’ve loved so much of the music that Byrne and his co-workers have made. I love his inquisitiveness, his playfulness, his restless inventiveness and his sheer output of work. I love his mordant, pared back and yet still wildly poetic lyrics. I love that he rides a bike wherever he goes, and then spends his down time writing about bicycles and inventing bike racks.

And, I especially love that with 1984’s Stop Making Sense, Byrne and director Jonathan Demme rewrote the rule book on what a concert film could look like.

Spike Lee’s American Utopia captures a spellbinding, often rapturous performance.

Supplied

Spike Lee’s American Utopia captures a spellbinding, often rapturous performance.

So I walked into American Utopia, not exactly in a wary mood, but prepared to be irritated and bored by everything that bugs me about Byrne, just as much as I was ready to be delighted and enthralled by everything I know he is capable of.

I needn’t have worried. Thinking about it now, there is no way that Byrne would ever collaborate on a film that will be endlessly compared to Stop Making Sense, if he wasn’t completely aware that it could stand the comparison.

American Utopia, like the earlier film, is easily one of the very best concert movies I have ever seen. It might even be my new favourite.

The show starts gently. The stage is bare, bathed in pale light and dressed on three sides by curtains of fine steel chain.

The set list – as expected I guess – weaves in and out of material from the new album, but takes in a decent selection of back catalogue and old favourites, always with enough freshness and vitality to make the songs new again. An early detour into Don’t Worry About the Government brings all of Byrne’s 12-piece band to the stage. Of the 12, six are drummers and percussionists.

The band, drilled like infantry but still playing with complete joy and belief, send these songs out to an audience who are on their feet pretty much from the first notes. Intricate one moment, thunderous the next, but always perfectly in control and knowing exactly how every facet of the music and the show fits together. It is a spellbinding, often rapturous performance.

Spike Lee’s American Utopia is exactly what you hope for in a concert movie, but done with such precision and elegance you won't even notice the director’s absolute artistry.

Supplied

Spike Lee’s American Utopia is exactly what you hope for in a concert movie, but done with such precision and elegance you won’t even notice the director’s absolute artistry.

Behind the cameras, Spike Lee plays a very cool hand.

Lee’s direction is a model of unobtrusiveness and restraint. There are no camera-operator cameos here, or distracting aerial shenanigans. Lee just frames, cuts and gets out of the way of his own film. It is exactly what you hope for in a concert movie, but done with such precision and elegance you won’t even notice Lee’s absolute artistry.

American Utopia is a flat-out triumph. On the biggest screen you can find, with the people you love and everything dialled up to eleven, it will be absolutely sensational.