Toronto 2020: David Byrne’s American Utopia

David Byrne's American Utopia. Photograph by David Lee/HBO.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is an absolute joy to watch no matter how familiar you are with Byrne or the Talking Heads.

Before I go any further with my review, please make sure to watch the concert film to the very end.

Thanks to the joys of technology, it took three attempts to watch this concert film.  After crashing twice on Thursday morning, I decided to make another attempt in the evening.  Rather than continue where I left off, I decided to rewatch from the beginning.  One reason for doing so is that these songs are just a pleasure on the ears.

Concert films are always tricky.  You have to have the right camera placement to capture what’s on stage.  Not only this but you can’t lose the pacing in the editing.  All it takes is one bad cut to an angle that doesn’t work and it’ll mess it up.  Thankfully, this isn’t the case as Spike Lee is a master behind the camera.  This is a filmmaker who knows what he is doing.  The stage doesn’t give Lee much room to get creative with placing the camera but he makes it work to his advantage.  The energy never lets up Annie-B Parson’s choreography with all the singing and dancing from the 12 people on stage.  And again, Lee is able to capture the movements without losing momentum.

David Byrne’s American Utopia will probably go down in history as a one-of-a-kind concert film.  Personally speaking, I have never seen anything like this before.  I don’t know if I ever will again.  Byrne played to sold-out crowds at Broadway’s Hudson Theater between October 2019 and February 2020.  The run ended shortly before the world shut down.  And yet, here he is performing songs from his 2018 album of the same name.  This is in addition to his time with both the Talking Heads and his own solo career.

If you are unfamiliar with the stage show, Byrne also covers a Janelle Monáe song, “Hell You Talmbout.”  This song is just as relevant now as it was when Lee filmed the show.  Byrne isn’t afraid to touch on other social issues.  He addresses climate change, immigration, and another subject that is more important this year than maybe ever before, voter turnout.

DIRECTOR:  Spike Lee
CAST:  David Byrne, Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III

David Byrne’s American Utopia held its world premiere during the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival in the Gala program. HBO will air the concert film on October 17, 2020. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.