David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An exuberant concert film presented by Byrne and Lee

“David Byrne’s American Utopia”, which was released on HBO in last month, gave me one of the most exuberant experiences I ever had during this year. Although I must tell you first that I am not that familiar with the works of David Byrne, I was delighted and excited many times during several highlight moments in this exceptional concert film, and its brimming aura of hope and optimism accompanied with the wholesome messages on human connection certainly soothed my cranky mind a lot.

As many of you know, the film is a live recording of Byrne’s successful Broadway concert in 2019, which features not only several songs of Byrne’s latest album “American Utopia” but also a number of notable songs in his music career including “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once in a Lifetime”. In case of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, it has never left my mind since I happened to encounter it for the first time via Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987), and I also remember well how memorably this catchy song was performed by Byrne himself in Paolo Sorrentino’s offbeat drama film “This Must Be the Place” (2011).

In the beginning of the concert, you will instantly notice the strikingly minimalistic qualities of the square stage where Byrne is going to perform along with a small group of singers and musicians to back him up. Surrounded by long strings of shiny beads on its left, right, and back side, the stage is filled with soft gray mood, and this impression is further accentuated by the attires of Byrne and others on the stage, who all wear almost identical gray suits while also being barefoot.

However, the mood does not feel drab or joyless at all, and Byrne quickly establishes the lightweight mood of the concert with his opening song “Here”. As holding a model of human brain on his left hand, he humorously sings about a certain important part of human brain, and then he effortlessly generates the inviting sense of goodwill and positivity as subsequently giving a playful speech to his amused audiences.

Once Byrne sets the ground for what will follow next, he is promptly joined by his backup singers and musicians, who fluidly move on the stage as joyously performing his songs along with him. I could not help but smile a bit as listening to the cheerful lyrics of “Don’t Worry About the Government”, and I was also quite tickled by the offbeat quality of “I Zimbra”, which impressively begins with a part of Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem “Gadji beri bimba”.

And I was certainly not disappointed at all with a part where they finally perform “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. While the performance itself is relatively plainer than the one shown in Sorrentino’s 2011 film, Byrne and his singers and musicians perform this iconic song with lots of spirit and energy. In fact, you may find yourself rocking along with its repetitive background rhythm in addition to being touched by the comforting aspects of its lyric (“Home, is where I want to be/ But I guess I’m already there/ I come home, she lifted up her wings/ I guess that this must be the place”).

After the exhilarating performance of “Once in a Lifetime”, the concert proceeds to less familiar territories for me, but the film kept holding my attention as Byrne and others exude more joy and excitement to be shared along with their audiences, who, as often shown to us later in the film, are all having a ball with the concert. Around the end of the concert, Byrne and his musicians and singers gladly walk down from the stage and then hang around their audiences for a while, and that took me back to when I watched a video clip of Tilda Swinton dancing along with many attendees of the 2013 Ebertfest.

As I enjoyed these and many other entertaining moments in the film, Byrne, who is 68 at present, came to me as not only a passionate talented artist but also a decent guy who really wants to spread more positive vibe around others. He feels sincere in those brief speeches preceding some of the performances during the concert, and he also steps aside for introducing his musicians and singers one by one. During the end credits, we get a little surprise, and that reminds us again of how casual he is with others working along with him.

Director Spike Lee, who also produces the film with Byrne, did a commendable job of presenting Byrne’s concert with considerable vivacity and verisimilitude. While we can easily guess where he put his cameras here and there around the stage, we become less conscious of that as enthralled by what is vividly and deftly presented on the screen thanks to Lee’s crew members including cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Adam Gough, and the overall result is another recent highlight in Lee’s filmmaking career after “Da 5 Bloods” (2020), an ambitious drama film which is incidentally one of the most notable films of this year in my inconsequential opinion.

In conclusion, “David Byrne’s American Utopia” is a superlative concert film to be admired and appreciated for not only Byrne’s terrific music but also its fantastic visual presentation. Like other recent superb concert films such as Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light” (2008) or Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” (2019), it will surely give you indelible moments to linger on your mind for a long time, and you may also find yourself listening to more of Byrne’s works.

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