Sunday, October 18, 2020

Start Making Sense: AMERICAN UTOPIA

I could quickly tell that Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia is among the greatest of concert films. Plenty capture a performance, record an event, pin down a moment in time for us to return to again and again. When working near the peak of the form, a concert film gives the impression of a night of entertainment with a particular production. Here we have that and more. By the end, I felt I’d seen the show in person myself. It helps that the event itself is a masterwork in which the legendary Talking Heads frontman puts other aging stars’ greatest-hits tours to shame. Here he’s imagined a fully thought-through theatrical experience. The set is simplicity itself: three walls of chains and lights like bead curtains draped around a bare stage. Byrne and his small backing band and dancers are dressed alike: barefoot in well-tailored blue-grey suits. (They look like preachers ready for a baptism, or maybe Moses on Holy Ground.) The instrumentation is guitar-based, eclectic — especially percussion of an impressive variety — and worn on the musicians with marching band-style rigs. They have maximum mobility to leap and dance — moving with a loose-limbed geometric precision to the driving funky pop rhythm, symbolic and surrealist lyrics, and trance-like repetitions filtered through Byrne’s dense kaleidoscopic vector of all world music. They play some hits — “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” — that you’d recognize from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (a perfect concert film). They play some obscurities. They play a cover or two. His stage patter is earnest, a little oddball, a little cornball, a smidge political, and that’s just right. It’s held together sonically — the music, though drawn from a multiplicity of Byrne’s projects is played with a consistent groove and beautifully modulated mood — and visually—the simple staging and costuming drawing attention to the community formed on stage and in the theater. The film, joyfully alive, gathers its ecstatic energy there.

For that’s where the production, and Lee’s framing of it, reaches its greatest heights. Lee, who has made good concert films in the past (Freak, The Original Kings of Comedy, Passing Strange), here makes his finest one. His camera is always perfectly placed, never obtrusive even when moving, always capturing flourishes of movement. It’s edited fluidly, never distracting and always enhancing the movement of people and lights on stage. Sometimes we see silhouettes or half-lit visions of the audience bopping along, lost in the moment, feeling the music. They’re totally transported—and so are we. Byrne, as a figure of pop music, has a voice all his own, a distinctive tight lilt that soars in unexpected curlicues or cracks out in driving staccato. His figure—thin, open, somehow clenched and loose in the same moment, almost alien in his movements—is instantly recognizable, even hypnotic. And yet he’s unfailingly generous on stage, paying tribute to his collaborators, holding attention while becoming one of the group, moving in the freedom of precision, isolated but together. Lee captures all of this, seeing the stage as a vessel for all of this great music, great communion with the creative energy of the moment. I found American Utopia to be as close to a religious experience as cinema gets. It’s a great concert captured exceptionally well, that’s true. I was tapping my feet and clasping my hands and bobbing my head and humming along, even all alone in front of my television. But it also has the feeling of a transcendent humanist revival meeting for faith in others, in connection, in imagination, in compassion, in contemplating deep questions, and giving yourself over completely to the power and release of great music. Somehow Lee captures this live experience feeling waves of love from the audience to the stage, from the performers to each other, and everyone in the room to the experience they’ve collectively had together. I felt I’d had it too.

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