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MOVIES: David Byrne's American Utopia - Review (LFF 2020)

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As far as I’m concerned, David Byrne can do nothing wrong and American Utopia is further proof of that, he cares, so much, and is wonderfully talented as he turns this film into a crowd-pleasing, optimistic spectacle that feels like the optimum example of the famous Bill & Ted catchphrase, “Be Excellent to Each Other… and Party on, Dudes!” It’s somewhat refreshing to see then, that both American Utopia and Bill & Ted Face the Music are living up to the optimistic, hopeful messages in a 2020 that is otherwise full of doom and gloom. There is little room for self-destruction in American Utopia, indeed, Byrne strips away as much supporting instruments and technology as he can get away with in order to focus on the thing that matters most, human beings, and his unique backing band is made up of a collection of incredibly talented people that perfectly showcase his point.

Whether it’s the transition from I Know Sometimes A Man Is Wrong into Don’t Worry About the Government or Once in a Lifetime being played before a crowd that are *so into it* or Byrne and his band dancing around a delighted audience to Road to Nowhere, American Utopia captures the essence of Byrne at the top of his game. He hasn’t lost any of his charm or eccentricity that Stop Making Sense, one of the all-time great concert films managed to capture, but the film also acts as a passionate rallying cry: directed by Spike Lee, Byrne takes his platform and uses it to show audiences the scale of those who vote compared to those who don’t, and tells audiences of his actions that he’s been doing to make sure that more people register to vote. He’s about as far removed from Morrisey as you can get, a genuinely likeable figure who is impossible to hate. Effortlessly charming in a way that instantly resembles documentaries like Bill Cunningham, New York, Byrne even leaves the stage by cycling out the back door and disappearing onto the city streets - becoming anonymous with the commuters.

Spike Lee’s direction is creative and maximises the full potential of the indoors theatre arena. Between this and Da 5 Bloods Lee manages to further prove that he is at the top of his game this year, pulling audiences along as he does so whilst finding a way to remind them as to why they’re there in the first place. Byrne is magnetic and incredibly majestic on screen – bringing his presence to the audience in a joyful and just-flat out brilliant way. It’s safe to say that few artists can ever be lucky enough to make one great concert film in their lives, but 36 years on from Stop Making Sense, a film so good it doubles as one of the best movies ever made, American Utopia is a more than worthy sequel, that – given I was lucky enough to see this at the wonderfully socially-distanced Prince Charles Cinema in London – makes this the closet experience I’ve had to a live concert performance this year. It’s instantly memorable, helped by an enthusiastic crowd, and works as a wonderful call to arms that deserves to be seen by more than just Talking Heads fans.

Hopefully in time, this HBO Max exclusive original will get the same love and acclaim as Stop Making Sense. It’s just as good.

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