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Review: ‘American Utopia’ is a once-in-a-lifetime adaptation of David Byrne’s Broadway show

"David Byrne's American Utopia," directed by Spike Lee, adapts the Broadway show with electrifying results.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia,” directed by Spike Lee, adapts the Broadway show with electrifying results.
(David Lee / HBO)

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was

You may find yourself living in a unchanging space. And you may find yourself hanging by a thread. And you may find yourself watching “David Byrne’s American Utopia.” And you may ask yourself, “Well … how can I watch this on a continuous loop?”

Same as it ever was. Those five words, contained in the 40-year-old Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime,” sum up the warped sense of time that has defined this quarantine year about as well as any five words could. And “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” the Spike Lee-directed film version of Byrne’s jubilant 2019 Broadway show, offers an antidote to that quarantine-mandated monotony, an invitation to connect, change and, I don’t know, maybe go outside and ride a bicycle, as Byrne does during the movie’s closing credits.

I have watched this movie half a dozen times in the last two weeks and the only thing that’s preventing me from viewing it again is the necessity of filing this review. That “American Utopia” will live indefinitely on HBO Max offers a measure of hope that I can get through the rest of the year with my faculties intact. We may well be on the road to nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we can’t cling to a steadfast belief that things can (and will) get better.

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“American Utopia” arrives 36 years after Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense,” which documented three shows the Talking Heads played at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in 1983 and just might be the greatest concert movie ever made. Until, that is, “American Utopia.” Rank them 1A and 1B.

A film version of a Broadway adaptation of a concert tour: Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne stars in HBO’s “American Utopia,” directed by Spike Lee.

Byrne’s Broadway show centers on connection. It begins with him sitting alone onstage, pondering a model of the human brain and musing about its areas of precision and confusion and the possibilities to “connect to the other side.” When Byrne finishes, barefoot dancers and musicians enter the stage, one by one, all clad in gray, all carrying their own instruments, and their individual personalities begin to emerge, a device the show shares with “Stop Making Sense.” The difference: The older Byrne now completely engages with those around him. It may have taken him decades, but he has learned how to balance individual expression with communal teamwork.

“Objectively, I could never figure out why looking at a person should be any more interesting than looking at any other thing, like, say, a bicycle or a beautiful sunset or a nice bag of potato chips,” Byrne, 68, says, during one of the several brief, contemplative interludes between songs. “But yeah, looking at people … that’s the best.”

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These meditations on the human condition bind together a set of songs, some new, some old (about half come from the Talking Heads’ catalog) that are staged and immeasurably enhanced by Annie-B Parson’s ingenious, exultant choreography. (Special shoutout to ginger-haired dance captain Chris Giarmo and the marvelous vocalist Tendayi Kuumba, who shadow and prod and boost Byrne nearly the entire show.)

There are no amps or drum kits or wires or chords or mike stands. “Us and you,” Byrne tells the audience. “That’s what the show is.” Lee’s cameras make use of that freedom, providing immediacy and a palpable sense of the energy and pure pleasure that’s emanating from everyone involved. The director also makes a powerful addition to the performance of the Janelle Monáe protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” showing photographs of the Black Americans killed by police that are mentioned during the call-and-response portion of the anthem.

Byrne says he also sees the song being about the possibility of change. “Not just in the imperfect world out there,” he says, “but in myself too. I also need to change.” A close examination of his art over the decades indicates that he’s on that road. And it’s going somewhere. You’ll want to join him and take that ride.

'David Byrne's American Utopia'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Available Oct. 17 on HBO and HBO Max

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