The screen is black. The next frame looks down from above on a man seated at a table – with a model of a brain in front of him. Thus begins David Byrne’s American Utopia – the film adaptation of Byrne’s stage show. This filmed version is directed by American master Spike Lee. In my estimation, it is not only one of the best films of the last year, but a film that provides a unique experience with which to process our collective year in 2020.
No, Byrne’s film does not directly address the pandemic. It was filmed prior to the breakout of COVID-19. In that way, it exists outside of this reality in which we now find ourselves. Throughout the film, shots of the crowd at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre causes one to pine for the days of experiencing a work of art in such a communal fashion with strangers seated right next to you. But this film has no connection to that communal pain we all experienced in the last year. So, what makes it the perfect film for 2020, then?
Well, I think we could all use a little more music in our lives, for starters. Just as in the concert film of all concert films, Stop Making Sense, which Byrne made with Talking Heads and the inimitable director Jonathan Demme, this film brings the joy of music and human connection. It does this through a few of the same songs from that 1984 classic, but it brings its own experience through new songs and visual wrinkles from Lee.
The first song – Byrne’s cerebral “Here” – pulls us into the experience on which we’ve embarked. What is reality? What is thought? Why ask these questions? As Byrne holds out this model brain and looks at it, the beautiful stage design begins to take shape. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. Okay.
After this song, Byrne recounts how he heard that babies have hundreds of millions more neural connections than adults. As we grow, we lose these connections. “We keep the connections that are useful to us,” Byrne says. “…until the ones that are left define who we are as a person, who we are as people, they define how we perceive the world, and the world appears to make some kind of sense to us.”
So much of this film rests between the shoulders of the legendary Byrne, but it would not be the masterpiece that it is without the incredible guiding hand of Lee. He is one of our greatest directors, and his voice merges perfectly with Byrne’s. The very next song is an example of this, as a sharp beam of light casts its way over the stage, illuminating the performers who have now joined Byrne. So many lyrics stand out from this film, but one in this song gets at the unique way this film resonates in light of 2020.
“I know sometimes the world is wrong. I know sometimes I do believe. I know sometimes the world is wrong. They’ll be wrong until you’re next to me.”
Byrne asks questions throughout like – why is it that looking at a person is more interesting than looking at a bag of potato chips? This leads into the Talking Heads classic “This Must Be the Place”. Looking at people is the best. There is something unique about human connection.
Later in the film, the stage itself mimics a television screen as Byrne stares into it. We then take the perspective of the TV and look directly into Byrne’s eyes through the shimmering metallic walls that envelop the stage. Lee follows this with one of the best visual flourishes in the film – another overhead shot where we see the light of the “TV” passing Byrne to reach the audience behind him. He has his back turned to them.
We’ve all tried to replicate human connection through virtual means this year. I’ll be the first to say that the Zoom calls and Facetimes were helpful. I also find specific joy in watching films and TV shows. Don’t mistake this for me saying those have no purpose. But Byrne gets at something that surely became clear to all of us in 2020 – nothing can completely replicate human connection. And yet, for all the ways we lost that connection this year, this film gave me hope for the power of when we will once again experience it to the fullest.
By the time Byrne begins incantations of nonsense Dada poetry, we’ve been sucked in. The excerpt is from Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate”, and the sounds emanating from Byrne’s mouth are surely nonsensical. But before we’re pulled completely out of our enraptured state, Byrne inserts himself back into his professorial role. He explains that these poets were trying to make sense of a world that had gone insane through an economic crash, the rise of Nazism, and encroaching fascist tendencies across the globe.
Unfortunately, that may begin to sound familiar to us.
Byrne explains that Dada poet Hugo Ball said that their art was meant to showcase the presence of independent minds outside of war and nationalism. We are thinkers, and we remain. Even with all the chaos around us, we remain. And we’re trying to make something from the raw materials we find around ourselves.
Throughout the film, I was constantly transfixed by the design of the stage Itself. The focus is on the performers, with no cords or extraneous machinery. It’s just the performers and their instruments. The only artistic flourishes come from those metallic walls and from the lighting. It is so simple, and yet in the hands of masters like Byrne and Lee, so much comes from it.
By the time “Slippery People” comes on, it’s going to be difficult to keep from getting up and dancing in your living room. And I say that as someone who has been known to sit at a table rather than dance at weddings. There’s something infectious about Byrne’s music. I felt it in Stop Making Sense, and I feel it again here. We’re a part of this now, and it’s moving from our minds to our full being. We’re thinking people – sure – but we feel just as much as we think. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s defining moment comes at the intersection of Byrne’s music, Lee’s visual direction, and the work of a third artist – Janelle Monáe. Byrne explains that he requested to include a cover of one of her songs in this show. He asked her what she might think about “a white man of a certain age” covering the song. She loved the idea, saying that “the song was for everyone.”
It is called “Hell You Talmbout”, and it would be a powerful experience in any year due to the sad fact that black men and women being killed by police happens far too frequently. Yet, we dealt with this in unique ways in 2020 with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd among so many others. The song’s title becomes another question asked by Byrne as the names of those killed by police brutality are chanted. Lee is the perfect artist for this moment. He intersperses images of the people as their names are chanted. At the end of the song, more names appear on the screen. The toll of human loss is incalculable.
There is righteous anger in this song. It is a break from the experience that had been building to this point. And yet – it is the perfect note. Because, what sensible person isn’t angry when looking at the injustices around them? If we are to connect with those around us, we must ask these questions too. Byrne says that he feels there is a hopefulness in the song as well. Change is possible, but it must begin with us. We are not fixed yet. We are a work in progress.
By the time Byrne leads the rest of the performers out into the crowd during the film’s final song, I had stopped worrying about why people weren’t distanced or wearing masks. It wasn’t that I forgot about reality or that the film served only as an escapist experience for me, though it certainly is that. As the film’s closing notes rang out, I was overcome with the hope that reached beyond our pandemic reality. There will be a time when we can freely connect again. Those connections mean something. They are worth hoping for.
One fine day.