TIFF 2020 (I): David Byrne’s American Utopia
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David Byrne and Spike Lee (Photo by David Lee)

Even without the pandemic and the associated pulling of high market value films from the festival circle until it's over (?), It is likely Spike Lees David Byrne's American utopia would have been the opening film of TIFF 2020. The goal of gala presentations is to sell expensive seats, and Lee and Byrne's Q&A combo after a concert film would have been a surefire bet. American Utopia is a mostly handcrafted rendition of Byrne's 2019 Broadway show and begins with “Here,” one of two songs co-written with Daniel Lopatin from the rather tricky album of the same name – the least known selection, five in all, comes from it Album. They're not some of Byrne's strongest material (although they predictably improve with an element of live performance), but luckily the set relies heavily on Talking Heads' biggest hits (nine of 21 songs), four songs from his solo or Collaboration albums, two of them The Dance Pieces on which he did guest vocals (I completely forgot X-Press 2, the musicians behind “Lazy” existed) and a Janelle Monáe cover, on which more will come soon.

Byrne is a veteran of elaborate stage presentations and / or reconsidering song arrangements for each tour. That round of arrangements, luckily for this non-musical lover, wasn't celebrated on Broadway – ten musicians and two dancers (who occasionally play along to the rhythm) run through a brisk 100-minute set that Byrne swears on stage is completely live. (I think that means the busy brass arrangements in his St. Vincent collaboration, "I Should Watch TV" come from an example programmed into the keyboardist's gear? Good enough.) The musical considerations here don't belong among his most convincing. But Byrne always had great backing bands and his best material is indestructible: even a slightly less exciting “I Zimbra” will always be fun. I tore myself through “Don't Worry About the Government” early on, ”and this version of“ Slippery People ”is better than the original studio recording and maybe with the Stop Making Sense replay. (Why was the key changed from D to C major in Mid Aughts highlight “Glass, Concrete & Stone”?) A final rendition of “Road to Nowhere” begins with Byrne repeating his stage move on location, a la "The Swamp" in "Stop Making Sense," but I suspect the song title's connotation with the Trump administration will make it unplayable live for the rest of Byrne's career.

In between songs, Byrne makes a few speeches – all with good intentions, some cornball. One is about Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball; Byrne quotes a few lines from the latter about the resistance to fascism and receives a nice round of applause. He later urged people to vote and found that the local elections only had a 20% turnout. "We have to do it better than 20%," he says, and the crowd cheers (what should they do, Boo?). The intent to project a photo of Colin Kaepernick while the performers kneel in the middle of the song and raise their first ones is well meant, but this is basically the kind of exercise in self-congratulatory liberalism that pushes the buttons of the slightly indignant Breitbart reader, provokes enthusiastic applause from an almost ubiquitous white audience eager to reassert their liberal beliefs and will likely make everyone else roll their eyes.

Lee's approach to reporting on the show is largely unspectacular. He often chooses to pause the proscenium presentation for cut-ins that highlight groups of musicians as they rearrange themselves in predictably elaborate choreography on stage – this destroys the unity of the presentation, but you get the overall idea. Some top views of the stage lean slightly towards Busby Berkeley, but the most recognizable visual element of Spike is a replay of a take from Red Hook Summer. There he stretched back and moved away from Preacher Clarke Peters; Here Byrne's camera withdraws and extends its arms in the middle of the song. For one of the covers of Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout" set, a more active directorial intervention is required. The 2015 protest song, with its chorus of black names killed by the police and repeated call and reply prompts for viewers to say their names, was already used by Travis Wilkerson for the climax of his self-questioning Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun ?, An exciting look at his family's history of racism. Its use in this very insistent live performance film was felt to be well deserved after Wilkerson's thorough, smug investigation into white guilt – or at least understandable in its reach for catharsis by a voice that deserves more reinforcement than his own. Byrne takes a simpler approach to the song by saying he asked Monáe what she thought of "a white man of a certain age who does the song." She loved the idea, he says, because "the song is for humanity". The band starts and Lee cuts to repeated dolly-ins in large photos of those held by a black woman. The song is now five years old so unfortunately / inevitably many more names have to be added, which Lee duly does with more photos and title cards after the song is over and the cheers have stopped.

I would prefer people to mean well than not, and Byrne is a legend. When Utopia peaked, things couldn't help but compliment themselves a little: When Byrne and the band take a round of the orchestral department to end a show that concludes "Road to Nowhere," it's hard failing to notice that the audience (the only significant audience reactions during "Bringing Down the House") are predominantly white, middle aged, and generally not a rock show crowd – or maybe a rock show crowd, but one from 1978 that can now pay any ungodly price charged for front row seats. If you're a fan, there is no way that some of these sets will reach you. Still, no one could get away with a stronger political sentiment than to confidently confirm their core beliefs. One of the very last credits invites viewers to send "UTOPIA" to a text phone line operated by Participant Media so that they may continue to receive various social media notifications and calls to sign petitions. Whatever form a meaningful change takes, it is unlikely to come from that direction.


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