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In HBO Max's 'American Utopia,' David Byrne and Spike Lee suggest solidarity brings us hope

Lee didn't make a documentary nor Byrne a show about police violence or institutional racism. If it has those, it’s because it aspires to have everything.
Image: American Utopia
"American Utopia" on HBO Max.David Lee / HBO

Spike Lee’s film “American Utopia,” on HBO Max beginning Oct. 17, opens with David Byrne standing in a gray square of light, barefoot, wearing a gray suit, singing in his inimitable, melodic, nasal tenor about the brain he’s holding. “Here is an area of great confusion,” he says, pointing to a pink wrinkle. He indicates another, "Here is a section that’s extremely concise."

Lee's offering is a filmed staging of Byrne’s Broadway production of the same name, which was itself a hybrid creature — something between a short concert and a hugely entertaining existential monologue.

I saw the show live on Broadway in the era when that was still possible, but I did notice things in Lee’s movie that I didn’t from the audience — especially the geometric framing of the performers. The light appears on the stage in relentlessly even shapes, and the curtain, made of dangling strands of chain, is sometimes parted to allow a musician to emerge or to poke the big circular belly of a drum into view of the audience while the drummer stays concealed, except for his hands.

Byrne’s work is about passing the torch to his young bandmates, many of whom are people of color, so Lee’s distinctive perspective on Black identity is an ideal fit for bringing this show to the screen. In its finale — where Lee is most visible as a collaborator — “American Utopia” is about the necessity of confronting racism and trying to achieve some solidarity, right then, in the moment, as a viewer.

But you can’t film Byrne singing "Once in a Lifetime" without going toe-to-toe with Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads documentary, “Stop Making Sense,” which is arguably the greatest concert film ever made; even by that high standard, Lee holds his own. There is no place to hide on the blank stage or within the performers’ gray uniforms, and Lee doesn’t need one. In a work of theater, every member of the audience sees only what she can see from her place in the house. In this film, Lee moves the frame wherever he wants it, painting Byrne’s face with lens flare, filling the mobile proscenium of the TV screen with Angie Swan’s fingers or putting our seat in impossible places like the ceiling of the theater.

It doesn’t hurt that the band he films is perfection: Swan’s electric guitar and Bobby Wooten’s bass sit atop the mountain of percussion like whipped cream and a cherry, and dancers Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo make what is obviously a grueling 105 minutes seem like the most fun they’ve ever had.

“What we humans like looking at most is other humans,” Byrne explains, “more than a bicycle, more than a beautiful sunset, more than a bag of potato chips.” That’s why the production is so stripped down, he says.

Maybe: Intentionally or not, the gray suits, bare feet, curtain of chains and stark lighting are also reminders of hard times. But the other humans themselves are beautiful, and beautifully different. No two performers look anything alike, in defiance of their gray circumstances. Lee expands these differences yet further, tilting the camera against the movement of the actors and shooting them from below to emphasize their giant shadows on the curtain during a lighting change. He even drops in the occasional out-of-sequence shot.

The lyrics of familiar songs hit differently watching this show now: A lot of us — as we are evicted, food insecure or jobless as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — find ourselves observing that this or that dwelling is not our beautiful house or asking ourselves where we can find that large automobile.

The very idea of an American utopia almost sounds like a bad joke, given how far away utopia seems. Byrne is not a stranger to this sensation: His discography, both by himself and with the Talking Heads, is filled with observations about the beauty of a troubled or even ending world.

In “American Utopia,” though, he tries to convince us to hope without turning away from the evil in the world, quoting the Dadaist Hugo Ball. Ball, Byrne says, wanted “to remind the world that there are people of independent minds — beyond war and nationalism — who live for different ideals.” Ball was talking about his own theatrical endeavor, the Cabaret Voltaire, founded at the height of World War I.

Lee has not made a documentary — nor Byrne a show — purely about police violence or institutional racism or to get out the vote; if it contains those things, that’s because it aspires to contain everything.

And yes, of course, there’s an encore.