“David Byrne’s American Utopia” is a musical, theatrical and cinematic extravaganza of a documentary, bringing together the creative forces of Byrne, choreographer Annie-B Parson and filmmaker Spike Lee. It’s basically a concert film, but, as such, it is an expertly crafted blast of upbeatness.
The doc, premiering on HBO on Saturday, is a filmed version of a performance of Byrne’s same-named stage show, which ran from October 2019 through mid-February 2020 at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. On the bill are songs from Byrne’s “America Utopia” album (2018) and Talking Heads days, which ended when the new-wave band broke up in 1991.
Lee’s film might be described as a semi-sequel to “Stop Making Sense” (1984), Jonathan’s Demme’s Talking Heads documentary. Thirty-six years later, Byrne is still cool, still seeking and forever dancing like a goofball. He’s tuned in, rather than alienated, though.
In the opening scene, Byrne, alone and wearing a gray-blue suit, ponders a model of a human brain and talks about the importance of connecting with the global community.
Eleven band members gradually enter the stage, dressed like Byrne, and barefoot like him as well. Playing wireless instruments that are strapped to their bodies, they march, skip, jump and flop around., sometimes forming lines or circles They move in impeccable synchronicity, while their faces and bodies radiate individuality. Byrne often steps into the background, appearing elated to share the spotlight.
The musical numbers include full-pilot versions of songs ranging from “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” whose lyrics (“Now everybody’s coming to my house / And I’m never gonna / be alone”) have acquired new meaning during the pandemic, to “Burning Down the House” and “I Zimbra.” The latter features nonsensical lyrics penned by Dada-era poet Hugo Ball amid concerns about the rise of fascism, Byrne notes in one of his short monologues.
A highlight is a commanding rendition of “Hell You Talmbout,” the Janelle Monae protest song that names African-Americans who have been killed by law enforcement or in racial incidents. The performers ask the audience to say each of name aloud.
Byrne’s political slate also includes a plea to audience members: Vote.
This documentary doesn’t deliver the physical charge of a live experience.
Nor is it a character study of Byrne.
The film is a striking spectacle, an exhilarating celebration of music-making and a terrific example of filmmaker-subject sync. Lee and Byrne seem to be sharing a wavelength in terms of social sensibilities and buoyant energy.
This is very much a Spike Lee movie filled with vigor and expressive camera angles. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ overhead shots capture the scope of Parson’s rigorous choreography and add a bit of a cosmic vibe. Close-ups of joyful faces and equally ebullient feet convey the positive tone Byrne has set.
During “Hell You Talmbout,” the camera focuses on large photographs of the black individuals named in the song, compelling the audience to take note of their faces along with their names.
The show ends with a stirring version of “Road to Nowhere,” during which Byrne and company walk off the stage and around the theater. Soon, Byrne exits the scene unassumingly, on a bicycle.
You don’t have to be a David Byrne fan to enjoy this movie, although it might turn you into one.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
With: David Byrne, Tendayi Kuumba, Chris Giarmo, Gustavo Di Dalva
Directed by: Spike Lee
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Don’t be misled by the title. “S#!%house,” the debut feature of writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff opening Friday on demand, is a sensitively presented indie that eschews rudeness and trendiness and puts authentic, relatable emotion on the screen.
The spare plot follows Dallas-raised, dorm-dwelling freshman Alex (Raiff), who appears cool and popular but can’t connect with the social scene at his Southern California college. Alex communicates better with his stuffed animal than with his drunken party-boy roommate (Logan Miller). He desperately misses his supportive, loving mom (Amy Landecker).
Romance happens, sort of, after Alex and his resident adviser, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), flirt at a party held at the frat house that gives the movie its title. The two walk and talk, “Before Sunrise”-style, bury Maggie’s departed turtle, and sleep together. In the morning, the besotted Alex is crushed when Maggie pushes him away.
The film fares weaker as a love story than as a coming-of-age tale. Raiff’s screenplay doesn’t develop Maggie’s character as deeply as Alex’s. Cliches in the third act weaken credibility.
But demonstrating skills and sensibilities rare for a first-time filmmaker in his early 20s, Raiff has taken a familiar breaking-away and first-love story and filled the spaces between the plot points with connective spark and resonant feeling.
Credit also goes to Raiff the actor and his costar. With less to work with, Gelula makes the armored Maggie complicated and compelling.
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Logan Miller, Amy Landecker
Written and directed by: Cooper Raiff
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes