Back in 1984 David Byrne and David Lynch gave us unequivocally the best concert film ever released with Stop Making Sense. It is the bar by which I judge every concert film and, unsurprisingly, even more appropriate in this case. So, here we are 36 years later and Byrne has teamed with Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) to capture his Broadway concert and bring it to the masses.
First off, the music and musicianship are great. But that’s no surprise. Byrne has a wealth of music to draw on and has always gathered capable artists around him. The shape of the concert, however, isn’t quite what he managed with Stop Making Sense.
There is a shape. But unlike Stop Making Sense, which builds on the music and performance, American Utopia focuses on message. And, oddly, that message comes most into focus most powerfully when he performs Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” rather than his own songs. But while there is a thread of connective tissue thematically to the song choices and presentation, it never quite has the build and completeness of the earlier movie. Lee got lost in angles and points of view the audience didn’t have rather than just making the story on stage work. It isn’t poorly done, but it feels more like a filmed performance than it does a story.
If you have any love of The Talking Heads or Byrne’s music, this is a must-see concert. But if you’re hoping for a career topper after such a long gap, you may be a bit disappointed. Go for the concert and leave your expectations set appropriately. You won’t be sorry you spent the time. Byrne can still control a stage and his message is a timely one for our world.