Byrne and Brian Eno wrote the album American Utopia and released it to positive reviews in 2018. However, it was the subsequent Broadway show in 2019 that really gave this project international attention. Playing at the Hudson in late 2019, the show incorporated most of Byrne’s latest album with other songs from his career, including Talking Heads hits like “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “This Must Be the Place.” A hybrid of a traditional concert performance with musical theater choreography and even echoes of performance art, “American Utopia” earned raves on stage, and Lee decided to direct a film version of the show.
“David Byrne’s American Utopia” starts on a relatively barren stage, echoing the simple beginnings of “Stop Making Sense”—fans will enjoy visual beats and choices that seem to recall that incredible show and ask themselves if it’s coincidental or intentional. From the first song, “Here” (actually the last song on the newest album), Byrne is examining connections by literally singing about the human brain. In brief interludes between songs, he makes this quest for connection even clearer, talking about how people meet and the lines between individual and community. Both are so important to Byrne, who values singular artistic expression but also how those expressions form a bigger picture.
That idea is embodied in the show itself, one in which Byrne surrounds himself with an incredibly talented collection of performers, eleven in total, who serve as the “band” for “American Utopia.” They are dancers, singers, musicians, and collaborators—people moving around Byrne in a way that highlights him and creates a larger sense of performance. The choreography is mesmerizing, the musicianship is remarkable, and the sense of joy bursts off the screen. It also changes the music itself into a form of communal expression as most songs have been reworked into layered, percussion-heavy numbers for the structure of the show. Just watching these people rise and fall, joining voices in harmony, and stepping forward for a solo or receding into the background is so artistically inspiring—people at the top of their craft united in song.