Thursday, November 5, 2020

David Byrne's American Utopia




David Byrne and Spike Lee




















DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA                   B                                                            USA  (105 minutes)  2020  d:  Spike Lee

This film is a joyous antidote to the supreme narrowmindedness of the current political climate which verges on white nationalism to white supremacism, including a closing of our borders, a growing contempt for immigrants, with petty grievance issues cropping up everywhere, so instead of a united country, we are more fractured than ever along racial lines and class differences, disseminating falsehoods with regularity from the highest authority in the land, undermining any hope of unity and trust.  The American Dream of a safe haven inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, literally a beacon of light shining across the globe, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” has been summarily dismissed.  America has reneged on its promise, replaced instead by fear and acrimony, and what might be described as divisive hate politics, creating unending frustration for a nation that refuses to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality, as conceived by the original Founding Fathers and paid for in blood in Abraham Lincoln’s most eloquent Civil War Gettysburg Address, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  That dream is withering as we speak.  Trump and Southerners from the Republican Party have expanded on the racialized Southern Strategy, now adopting it as a national strategy, creating this whole notion of agitating white fear, also to marginalize, to racialize the elections, and suppress the power of the black vote.  Enter Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and his collection of percussion-oriented global rhythms, featuring an international cast of 11 musicians, including two primary dancers, Chris Giarmo, owning his queerness, wearing a glaring excess of facial make-up, and the ever-limber Tendayi Kuumba, one white and one black, one man and one woman, both seemingly in their own worlds when it comes to modernist dance interpretations, where it’s strange to see dancers wearing suits, yet their presence is not unlike the free-form dancers from the old Sun Ra Arkestra, attuned to a cosmic philosophy, channeling interplanetary forces.  Entirely minimalist, without an ounce of overkill, the visual conception recreates Byrne’s quirky concert film STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) directed by Jonathan Demme when Byrne partnered with choreographer Twyla Tharp, devising his own stage lighting, and even includes four of the original songs, like David Byrne's American Utopia - Burning Down the House YouTube (4:20).  What you’d never know is that this film is directed by Spike Lee, perhaps his whitest venture since 25th HOUR (2002), though both are love letters to the city of New York, yet few of his typical signature effects are present, feeling like a more conventional recreation of a Broadway show that happened to run for 6-months during fall and winter of 2019 before the Covid pandemic closed down all theaters earlier this year.  There is no sign of Covid here, no masks, no social distancing, so it’s an expression of an earlier time when performances were sold out and audiences were free to express their wild enthusiasm.  There is a very brief strobe light sequence, turning figures into black and white, a throwback to earlier music videos, and the film stock changes from high-def to a commercial grade at the end when performers go into the audience, greeted enthusiastically by patrons capturing the experience on their phones, yet few special effects are employed, instead emphasizing a collective humanity from the performers.  There’s a curious postscript showing cast members on bikes making their way through New York City traffic, all bundled up in winter attire, reflecting Byrne’s avid cycling activism, using a bike as his main means of transport throughout the city, even writing a book on cycling in 2009 entitled Bicycle Diaries, N.Y./Region: David Byrne: Live on Two Wheels | The New York Times YouTube (4:27).

Spike Lee has done this sort of thing before, filming an earlier Broadway musical in the rarely seen PASSING STRANGE (2009), running just a few short months in 2008, winning a Tony Award for Best Book, yet that film was unlike anything the director had ever done before.  In stark contrast to his earlier concert film, David Byrne is older now (aged 67 during the filming), with a wave of white hair that he constantly brushes away from his face, seen wearing a microphone, where he continually interacts with the audience, maintaining a running dialogue, beginning with the idea that there are many more neuro brain connections in babies, that we tend to lose them as we age, which may mean we’re not as bright, but may also mean we simply discard the ones not deemed essential.  With that in mind, the show explores the ideas of human connection, self-evolution, and social justice, where the main thrust is one of empathy, where we can all improve ourselves by learning to respect others, suggesting listening and learning is the road to acquired knowledge, where the songs advocate a welcomed unity in spirit, literally rejuvenating many of the lost connections, reaffirming many of the ideals that have been cynically rejected by this political regime, where Trump and his group of loyal followers are more of a cult group than an organized political apparatus, spreading misinformation while endorsing every known conspiracy theory that was previously only published in disgraced tabloids like The National Enquirer, which regularly published stories of UFO sightings and Martian invasions.  Who knew that fearmongering would become the prevailing mantra from an American President and his minions, suppressing any and all contrary views that don’t coincide with his own, creating an alarmist autocratic dive into the gutter of utter despair where dreams only die from disuse.  Byrne reminds us that a mere 55% of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 Presidential election, while only 20% vote for local elections, suggesting a vast majority remain indifferent to the outcome.  While this lacks the imagination of the Jonathan Demme film, which was a revelation when it was released, it does reaffirm just how valuable artists are on the global landscape, as they offer alternative paths to the dreary road we’re on, wherever we may be.  Featuring strangely robotic choreography by Annie-B Parsons, with Alex Timbers as production consultant, the film is an immersive experience offering the best seats in the house, adding an element of intimacy, though its fascination with close-ups may detract from an overall conception, yet it jettisons the viewer away from any conformist mindset, even as all performers are dressed exactly the same in standard gray suits, everyone barefoot, featuring a grey-lined stage, where it may as well be imagined futuristic prison attire, yet the songs themselves attempt to break free of the hermetic bubble we all seem to be living in, liberating our minds and hearts that seem to have slowly atrophied from disuse in Trump’s America, David Byrne's American Utopia - One Fine Day YouTube (4:47).  Byrne reminds us of our better selves, where the people around us matter, growing ecstatic simply by just being together, becoming a Whitmanesque ode to America, viewed as a work in progress, extolling the virtues of a utopian community that never seems to materialize, that may exist only in our imaginations.  As he introduces the song “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” that unbridled joy is also met with the thought that some people might be overstaying their welcome, like Buñuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), where in some part of your mind you might actually wish they’d leave, David Byrne Performs 'Everybody's Coming To My House' (4:13, with Byrne and the cast literally taking over the set of The Stephen Colbert Show).

More than 30 years ago Byrne was described in The New Yorker by film critic Pauline Kael, Stop Making Sense | The Stacks Reader, “Byrne has a withdrawn, disembodied sci-fi quality, and though there’s something unknowable and almost autistic about him, he makes autism fun.”  Perhaps with that in mind, he conceives a song like this, knowingly awkward and decidedly different, but accentuating his own individuality, suggesting he is who he is, David Byrne's American Utopia - I Dance Like This YouTube (3:29).  While acknowledging “We’re only tourists in this life,” Byrne has a way of singing in character, where he openly questions everything, identifying with various points of view, as if providing an existentialist travel guide, at times a psychopath, a televangelist, a domestic terrorist, where he has a knack for making the familiar feel strange and mysterious.  Continually pursuing various trains of thought, he recalls how the Dadaist Movement of the 30’s was a response to rising fascism while occurring during the economic blight of the Great Depression, using nonsense and absurdity to make sense of the times, while early on in his young, still developing life it seemed healthy to watch plenty of TV, holding out hope that it might set him free, literally stepping into the television in one musical number, like a scene out of David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME (1983), but there are no apocalyptic insinuations.  The most harrowing revelations come from a borrowed Janelle Monáe protest song that he saw her perform at a 2017 woman’s march in Washington, Hell You Talmbout - David Byrne's American Utopia YouTube (4:44), wondering if it would be equally effective when told from a white point of view, shouting out the names of black victims killed at the hands of the police, updated to include the more recent deaths driving the George Floyd protests, with Lee including photos of the deceased, along with photos of their mothers, just like Monáe did when she brought the mothers onstage with her when she initially performed the song.  The call and response effect is profoundly moving, a cathartic release from the incurred trauma of having to lament a neverending line of victims going back to slavery times (Police shoot, kill nearly 1,000 yearly – Investigative Reporting ...), breaking into a percussion-led marching band format, like a procession of New Orleans second-liners, instilling the idea of boldly choosing freedom over fear.  Lee’s cinematographer Ellen Kuras intercuts front row shots of the entire stage, moving back and forth to each side, along with shots from the back of the stage, and even a ceiling provided camera, but there are no dazzling Busby Berkeley formations.  Arguably the best shots are close-ups on Byrne’s face, pensive, absorbed, seemingly void of emotion, yet his calm demeanor dramatically contrasts with the enthusiastic musical energy happening onstage. The origins of this show, oddly enough, happened to be Byrne’s reading of French historian and political writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century two-volume Democracy in America while on tour, where many of the chapter titles are actually open questions, anticipating many problems that still lay ahead, where a new nation at the time was viewed as an experiment, but the future was open-ended, offering a utopian sense of what could still be achieved.  It is this sense of optimism that drives the Broadway production, and while there are occasional lapses, especially towards the end, mostly it provides a sense of well-earned urgency, with the entire band marching off into the audience in the rousing finale, David Byrne - Road To Nowhere - New York - Hudson Theatre - 10/4/2019 - American Utopia YouTube (5:21), reminding us exactly where we currently find ourselves, where the last four years have felt like living in a black hole, or maybe the dark ages.  

Post Script

One sticking point in the show is that David Byrne uses several songs made popular by the Talking Heads as if they are his sole and exclusive property, yet they were written in collaboration with other artists who aren't being credited.  It seems to me that in a Broadway show that questions our humanity and our shared connections with others, this misappropriation would be rectified.  

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