Reel Dad: ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ sings at New York Film Festival
With Broadway theaters closed because of COVID-19, the excitement of live performance is missed by many. Now, thanks to the cinematic imagination of director Spike Lee, the on-stage energy of the musical “David Byrne’s American Utopia” recently generated on Broadway comes to life on screen in a film celebrating the thrill of musical theater. This New York Film Festival selection begins its run on HBO on Oct. 17.
Lee - who continues his good year at the movies that started with “Da 5 Bloods” - creatively uses his camera to make us feel we are on stage with Byrne and his cast of versatile performers. While working within the limitations of capturing a live performance on camera, Lee manages to respect the source material as he reinvents the experience. As a result, the piece works as a movie while preserving the magic generated by its live performance.
As a piece of music, “American Utopia” can work in any medium. Originally released as an album in 2018, Byrne’s personal expression of how to view the world with realistic optimism willingly confronts what divides people and the communities we form. Using a variety of musical styles, loosely connected with narrative commentary, Byrne’s look at today feels as current as this morning’s headlines as he examines the forces that try to separate people who want to naturally connect.
What makes the piece work is its emotional integrity and musical variation. Byrne reaches for a range of musical styles to articulate his exploration of how people think, choose and interact. From its opening moments - where Byrne and his cast consider how the human brain makes choices - to later sequences that examine the racial divides that spread fear in our communities - the piece lets the freedom of its music articulate serious messages about the choices we face to make our world a welcoming place.
As a movie, Lee’s magical approach to his camera beautifully captures the joy of a live performance. Byrne’s excitement over the integrity of the material shines through the lens as he engages his audience in the theater with his commentary and thrills them with the cast’s creative movement. Movie director Lee, with respect for the material and performers, lets his camera freely roam the stage, capturing the routines from multiple angles, placing us with the cast on stage as they bring Byrne’s work to life. We are, at once, thrilled by the film and captivated by the in-theater performance.
Ultimately, Byrne’s charisma as a lead anchor for the piece makes it a joy to embrace this musical journey to many moods and situations. As a composer, he has long fascinated since his group “Talking Heads” first appeared in the 1970s. Today, with the wisdom acquired over time, Byrne uses the freedom of his music to articulate serious concerns about where our world may head. In a year when life could not be any less easy to predict, this magical musical reconfirms the power of choices we can make every day.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” runs 1 hour, 45 minutes, and will be released on HBO on Oct. 17.
Nutritional Value: David Byrne's American Utopia
Content: High. This beautifully-directed film of a Broadway performance offers a stylized and entertaining look at how people cope with the best and worst of times.
Entertainment: High. Composer/performer David Byrne, in musical tour-de-force, tells a compelling story of our power to choose to make our world a better place.
Message: High. Through thrilling musical sequences, Byrne and his talented cast focus on the heart of the material and the humanity of the message.
Relevance: Medium. Anyone who loves Broadway music and the thrill of live performance will find this a thrilling entertainment experience.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. For movie and Broadway lovers, there will be a lot to discuss about our world today.