‘American Utopia’: David Byrne, Spike Lee nourish a world starved for live music

HBO version of Broadway concert mesmerizes with pungent commentary, inventive choreography.

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A multicultural cast of musicians and dancers backs up David Byrne (right) in his concert film “American Utopia.”

HBO

Ever since the pandemic darkened theaters earlier this year, sending the entire performing arts world into a catastrophic state of limbo, we’ve seen all manner of creative virtual substitutes: digital dance seasons, clever musical mashups, a live-captured version of “Hamilton.”

Many of these have been good, some great. Yet none have truly matched the visceral experience many of us crave so profoundly: live performance, in a theater. And honestly, how could anything come close?

‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’

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HBO Films presents a concert film directed by Spike Lee. No MPAA rating. Running time: 105 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO and streams on HBO Max after that.

Well, now we have Spike Lee’s mesmerizing film version of David Byrne’s terrific Broadway concert “American Utopia,” which feels so thrillingly alive, you may actually forget you’re not in a theater. Or perhaps you’ll feel like the stage has somehow been lifted from its moorings and delivered straight to your living room — or, as Byrne might prefer, right into your brain. In any case, this hypnotic film experience is a badly needed shot in the arm for all of us: music lovers, theater lovers, dance lovers, culture lovers, life lovers. It’s also one of the best concert films in recent memory.

Of course, “David Byrne’s American Utopia” feels like far more than a concert. It’s based on Byrne’s music, yes, from his 2018 album of the same name but also other solo work and some iconic Talking Heads tracks. But that’s just the launching point.

The show, which one could broadly describe as a reflection on community and connectedness, is filled with pungent Byrne-ian commentary, on everything from brain function to Dadaism to climate change. “Meeting people is hard,” he muses at one point. But he can also get more political, as when he chides Americans for low voter turnout, especially in local elections.

A crucial element of the show’s success is its enormously talented multicultural supporting cast of 11 musicians and dancers, who hail from Brooklyn to Brazil. Dressed just like Byrne in silver-gray suits and bare feet, they play fascinating percussion instruments, and also sing and dance; everyone here does double or triple duty. Standouts include the exuberant Bobby Wooten III on bass and the elegant Angie Swan on guitar.

Then there’s the endlessly inventive choreography by Annie-B Parson, not so much dancing as a holistic system of movement performed joyfully by lead dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. “I dance like this because it feels so damn good,” goes the Byrne song “I Dance Like This,” and yes, it does feel damn good, both to watch and to emulate. By the way, go ahead and try to get through this film without dancing yourself.

Lee’s cameras constantly find new and exciting angles on the action (the cinematography is by Ellen Kuras) — overhead, underneath, behind the performers or half an inch from their faces. And yet we never glimpse a camera, even though 11 operators were involved.

The set is spare and stylish, surrounded by shimmering metallic curtains in the same silver-gray as the suits. “I thought, what if we could eliminate everything from the stage, except the stuff we cared about the most?” Byrne explains. “What would be left? ... Us, and you.”

Lee has made a few additions to the Broadway show. For example, when Byrne and the cast sing Janelle Monae’s stirring protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” chanting names of Black men and women who died in racial violence or at the hands of police, Lee provides powerful visuals and adds more recent names like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

As for Byrne, at 68 a remarkable font of quirky energy, he shifts seamlessly from somber moments like this to ebullient renditions of Talking Heads classics like “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Road to Nowhere.” But nothing gets the audience out of their seats like the rollicking version here of “Burning Down the House.” Chances are you won’t stay in yours.

On the show’s closing day in February, the audience was given happy news during curtain calls. Byrne announced to cheers that the show would return in September. Then the pandemic happened, shutting down every show on Broadway for the rest of the year. Only this week did Byrne announce that he plans to bring back “American Utopia” live on Sept. 17, 2021.

Until that one fine day, let’s thank Lee and Byrne for giving us something a little better — no, a lot better — than merely the next best thing.

The Chicago International Film Festival presents a preview screening of “David Byrne’s American Utopia” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the ChiTown Movies drive-in, 2343 S. Throop St. Tickets: chicagofilmfestival.com

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