On David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 14, 2018. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Joyous as it is, American Utopia would have been just about perfect if David Byrne had avoided the earnest political pleas.

David Byrne meets Spike Lee? The combination of talents sounded surprising when the director signed on to craft a television adaptation of the rock singer’s Broadway concert David Byrne’s American Utopia, which just debuted on HBO. Art rocker meets rock-thrower? Whimsy holds hand with rage, and the two go skipping down the street together? I couldn’t picture it.

But Lee turns out to be a fine choice to direct American Utopia: Putting cameras everywhere (including overhead, backstage, and in the wings) and zipping them around, he successfully avoids the trapped-in-a-box feeling of most TV versions of stage shows. Lee’s energetic camera work complements Byrne’s famous nervy, jerky kineticism as the singer leads a troupe of eleven singer-dancer-musicians through a roundup of songs from Byrne’s latest album American Utopia plus a few of his 1980s classics with Talking Heads. For a while, the show is such kooky bliss that it proves a worthy successor to the greatest rock concert film ever, Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense (1984), which like this film begins with Byrne awkwardly alone on a stage that gradually fills up, then overflows, with musicians and music. The effect is unconstrained friskiness, like a wading pool full of puppies. Byrne and Co. — all of them barefoot in matching gray suits with buttoned-down shirts beneath — carry with them cordless instruments that allow them to march, circle, sway, and shimmy in an ecstatically dorky array of moves choreographed by Annie-B Parson, who channels the nerd appeal of Talking Heads in the earlier film.

Byrne starts out with a paean to the human brain, a model of which he holds in his hand for the first number, which segues into his thoughts about how babies have millions more neural connections than adults. Do they know something we’ve forgotten? It’s a very Byrne-y thought, a view from the high chair where Byrne is forever the startlingly composed toddler — observing, learning, plotting. (Alas, “Stay Up Late” isn’t in this film.) At 68, his hair gone gray, Byrne is still a little kid — open and inquisitive, weird and silly, and unable to keep still if not exactly able to dance.

Yet the new film’s slate can’t compete with the song quality of Stop Making Sense — the only really first-rate numbers in this one are the Talking Heads holdovers, most of which were in the earlier movie. And though 1984 David Byrne was an overt leftie, he would have cringed at the earnestness of this film’s political agenda. Byrne stops the show to urge us to vote, and directs his audience to a voter-registration table set up in the lobby. He projects an image of Colin Kaepernick on the rear wall while he and his musicians simultaneously take a knee and raise a fist. He sings a (not very good) song, by Janelle Monáe, that is largely a recitation of the names of black people killed by authority figures. There’s a mention of climate change, a reference to James Baldwin, and a warning about fascism and nationalism. Most ghastly of all, he suggests reframing one of his own songs, “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” a cheeky bit of misanthropy that everyone can get behind, as a celebration of . . . open borders. Stop Making Sense had it right: Big suits are fun. Big speeches, not so much.

In a place such as New York City, where the show was filmed last winter, Byrne can safely assume pretty much everyone shares his politics, but for all of his talk about “positive change,” he’s making things a little worse rather than a little better with these political interludes. They don’t spoil the show, but the political sectors of our brains are the most irritable parts. Can anyone deny this? Byrne might as well be pouring itching powder into everyone’s undies. We could all use more breaks from politics, and a Broadway musical is a reasonable place to hope for one. Everybody likes music! Instead, Byrne reminds us, as if we needed reminding, of how divided we are as a people, of how many contentious issues there are, of how scared we all are of those nasty folks on the other side who wish us harm. He tosses in all of these political thoughts in his typical childlike, neutral-seeming, vaguely idealistic way, but even a child should understand there’s a difference between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till — two homicide victims who are treated as martyrs of equal stature in Monáe’s protest song.

The politics may weigh down this otherwise footloose film, but it’s still mostly glorious: “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” sound as wonderful as ever, and Byrne and Co.’s rendition of “Road to Nowhere” is a zany capper to the evening. These numbers show off Byrne at his Eighties finest — ironic, deadpan, mischievous, sly, a walking performance-art spoof of rock’s sex gods and troubled troubadours, the punks and rebels and revolutionaries Byrne lampooned with his fixed stare and his suit. Rock promised us urgency and passion: Byrne answered with album titles such as More Songs about Buildings and Food. If rock frontmen posed as shamans who would drill down to the truths in the core of the earth, Byrne pogo’d above it. American Utopia would have been just about perfect if Byrne had stuck to what he does best.

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