© 2020 Iowa Public Radio
IPR20012_Website_Header_Option2_NewsNavy.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

HBO To Present Adaptation Of Broadway Hit 'David Byrne's American Utopia'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Multifaceted Grammy-winning artist David Byrne comes to TV on Saturday. HBO is debuting a film of his theatrical concert Broadway show called "David Byrne's American Utopia." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this movie is one of the best concert films, period, since Byrne's last one 36 years ago.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: First, let's stipulate that David Byrne's spellbinding and celebratory film "American Utopia" is filled to the brim with a lot of great music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

DAVID BYRNE: (Singing) Oh, I'm wicked, and I'm lazy. Oh, don't you want to save me?

DEGGANS: If all this film that going forward were rocking versions of hits like "Lazy," Byrne's club jam with house artist X-press 2, that would be enough. But "American Utopia" is so much more, in part thanks to the inventiveness of director Spike Lee and in part because of how it's staged. Everything is gone except the musicians and the instruments they play, which they all carry around. Everything is wireless, and every singer wears nearly invisible headset mics. Several musicians in his 11-member backup band play instruments that would normally be in one drum set. One person carries a snare drum and cymbals, another plays bass drum, and yet another plays tom-toms. Their choreography and groove is so tight, they sound powerful as any conventional band, even while recreating hits from Byrne's old group Talking Heads, like "Once In A Lifetime."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Letting the days go by - let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by - water flowing underground.

DEGGANS: The stage look is arty and stark. Everyone's dressed in grey suits and barefoot. The entire band enacts choreography by Annie-B Parson that seems equal parts modern dance moves and whatever geeky gyrations Byrne uses in his videos. The combination is visually stunning, turning the band into living sculptures who capture the spirit of every song. And it's all topped off by cheeky occasional narration by Byrne, who starts off talking about how human brains work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

BYRNE: I've read something, well, kind of surprising and amazing the other day. I read that babies' brains have hundreds of millions more neural connections than we do as adults. And then as we grow up, we lose these connections. Does this mean that babies are smarter than we are, and that as we grow up we get stupider and stupider?

DEGGANS: Not exactly, Byrne says. We only retain the connections that matter to us. Throughout the concert, he keeps returning to themes of human connection, inclusiveness and justice, especially during the show's most powerful moment, a rendition of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout," where they say the names of Black people who died during and after confrontations with police.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hell You Talmbout? Hell You Talmbout? Hell You Talmbout?

BYRNE: Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say his name.

BYRNE: Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say his name.

BYRNE: Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say his name.

BYRNE: Eric Garner.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say his name.

BYRNE: Trayvon Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say his name.

DEGGANS: Pictures featuring the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were added after the concert was filmed. Spike Lee takes the camera where no audience member could go, filming scenes from above the group, from behind and on stage as if you were standing next to the performers. The result is a film which captures the unique flavor of a singular concert experience, the way director Jonathan Demme did for Talking Heads' landmark concert film "Stop Making Sense" back in 1984.

"David Byrne's American Utopia" is a welcome return for one of rock's most adventurous artists. If you need a thoughtful, jubilant, creative experience - and don't we all these days? - there is no better way to spend two hours of your time. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.