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KPCW sends its most discerning moviegoers to the movies each week to let you know which films are worth going to and which are a pass. The Friday Film Review airs at 7:20 a.m., during the Noon News and in The Local View. KPCW Friday Film Reviewers are: Barb Bretz, Rick Brough, Mark Harrington and Linda Jager.

Friday Film Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

Talking Heads front man David Bryne returned to the stage last fall for a sold-out Broadway run of his musical "American Utopia." If you missed it, the small screen adaptation, directed by Spike Lee, debuted on HBO this month. Linda Jager reviews "American Utopia" for this week’s Friday Film Review.

Concert films may look like an easy endeavor, but there is a fine art to preserving the energy of a live performance on film. Hailed as classic and one of the best of its genre, the 1984 Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense” succeeded by keeping things simple - focusing on the band, their music, and the futuristic performance of lead singer David Bryne.

Thirty-six years later, Byrne is back on stage and on screen and still keeping things simple with "American Utopia."

Filmed earlier this year at the Hudson Theatre before COVID-19 shuttered Broadway, Director Spike Lee captured Byrne’s musical and visual extravaganza for an at-home audience.

I was lucky enough to see the show live in December. From the not-so-cheap, stage right, back row mezzanine seats,  the show was a spectacle – even if I had to occasionally squint to see the performers.

Watching the film was a whole new experience. Lee captures Bryne and company up close using his classic dolly shot, while an overhead camera gives a birds-eye view of the creative lighting design and Annie-B Parson’s stunning choreography. I loved seeing it live, but seeing the film version from the comfort of my couch was a close second.

"American Utopia"is about human connection. Bryne’s minimalist production eliminates the distractions of opulent stage productions, costumes, and lighting to keep things simple and allow space for that human connection to thrive between Bryne, the band, the audience, and the viewers at home. 

The show opens with Bryne solo on stage, barefoot and dressed in a simple grey suit. With the opening of each song, members of the cast of international musicians emerge from a beaded backdrop, alsp barefoot and dressed to match Bryne, until the entire ensemble is onstage.

The remainder of the show features several Talking Heads classics – Burning Down the House, This Must Be the Place, Once in a Lifetime - and a stirring cover performance of Janelle Monáe's 2015 protest song "Hell You Talmbout," which lists the names of African-Americans who died as a result of racial violence.

The two-hour and fifteen minute performance is capped off with Bryne’s optimistic hymn – One Fine Day, followed by The Road to Nowhere, which takes the cast out into the audience, weaving their way through the theater and continuing to make those human connections.

Now Streaming on HBO, David Bryne’s "American Utopia" is the perfect antidote to the void of live music silenced by the pandemic. It might even get you off the couch and dancing.

This is Linda Jager with the KPCW Friday Film Review.

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