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#TIFF20 Review: David Byrne’s American Utopia (Gala Presentations)

September 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Directed by Spike Lee, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a film version of the Broadway show that the former frontman for the band Talking Heads staged in 2019 at the Hudson Theatre in New York. It was the opening night film at TIFF eleven days ago, and watching it now, I can see why.

Comprised of classic hits from Byrne’s time with the band and songs from his solo career, including his 2018 album American Utopia, Lee captures the live show on film with incredible verve. The result is an exhilarating concert movie that has been brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Byrne was already captured on film with the Talking Heads in Jonathan Demme’s classic 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, and this feels like a companion piece to that film.

As a film experience, David Byrne’s American Utopia captures the energy of the live show, and it feels like a celebration. Performing in front of an engaged audience of mostly boomers, who can be seen dancing along, Byrne is joined on stage by an enthusiastic ensemble of eleven people from around the world. The cameras often swirl around with the performers, who double as musicians and backup dancers, making us feel as if we are on stage with them.

There is a thrilling moment when Byrne introduces the band members one by one, building the arrangement for a song in real time, and laying to rest the rumours that they weren’t actually playing live on stage. Byrne’s idiosyncrasies as a performer are on full display, including his marionette-like dance moves. In between songs, the singer regales us with monologues about neural connections and making sense of the world, giving way to the show’s deeper themes about how we are all connected.

Themes of racial justice in America are woven in as well, including a stirring cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” listing the names of African-Americans who have been killed by police. In moments like these, we realize what drew Lee to this material. As a rhythmic celebration of music and movement, David Byrne’s American Utopia is a thrilling concert film that will make you want to dance along.

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 10th – 8:00 PM at Visa Skyline Drive-In at CityView

Thursday, September 10th – 9:00 PM at West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place

Thursday, September 10th – 9:15 PM at RBC Lakeside Drive-In at Ontario Place

Wednesday, September 16th – 6:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

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