David Byrne discusses the 'universality' of American Utopia, and how it's 'uplifting' despite 'dark' themes
As American Utopia kicks off Toronto International Film Festival, David Byrne addresses pandemic blues, apologising for blackface to Spike Lee and the joy of live performance.
In a film festival season that’s been turned largely virtual, Spike Lee’s American Utopia, a documentary of David Byrne’s concert musical and the opening-night film of the Toronto International Film Festival, has nevertheless supplied the giddy rush of live performance in a packed house.
The film was shot during the late 2019-early 2020 run of Byrne’s acclaimed Broadway show at New York’s Hudson Theatre. In it, Byrne deconstructs the traditional rock concert, sketching a narrative through his songbook from familiar Talking Heads classics up to his 2018 solo album of the same name. With 11 other musicians, all of them barefoot and dressed in silvery gray suits, Byrne leads a jubilant march on a road to nowhere. “Would you like to come along,” he sings in the Talking Heads staple. “You can help me sing the song/ And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right.”
There’s plenty that’s not all right in the world right now, the 68-year-old Byrne readily granted in an interview by video conference from New York the day after the film’s premiere. American Utopia is full of the darker realities of American life, touching on police brutality (with her endorsement, he performs Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest song 'Hell You Talmbout'), immigrant rights, and the 2020 election. (A voter registration team was stationed in the lobby.) But pockets of hope are still around, Byrne seems to suggest, especially when you’ve got a good percussion section.
The film, which will premiere on HBO and HBO Max on 17 October, drew raves out of Toronto (or wherever critics are watching remotely). Electrically shot by Lee, American Utopia may even be one of the best films of the year and, yes, even a worthy spiritual sequel to Jonathan Demme’s concert-doc classic Stop Making Sense.
Fresh from visiting his daughter in the Catskills, Byrne spoke about living up to that film, why even now he’s not hopeless, and how his pandemic cooking is going.
The joy of live performance is so palpable in American Utopia. Do you miss it?
The film is going to be in the New York Film Festival and at drive-in screenings. That’s like a little baby step towards getting us back together. We’re actually, like, in eyesight of one another. We’ll be in cars. Instead of applauding, people will honk their horns. It’s a step. We’ll at least feel like we’re together. It’s kind of an essential part of what we are. It’s not just my life as a performer, it’s what we are as a species. We’re social animals and one of the greatest punishments that human beings can inflict on one another is to isolate them from the tribe or isolate them from other people.
You touch on many of the more troubling parts of American life in the show, but there’s a constant uplift. In such dystopic times since, has it been harder to find bits of utopia?
Part of the nature of the show is to be realistic but show people what’s possible. I have a little solutions-journalism project that I have called “Reasons to Be Cheerful.” We look for examples that are hopeful, people who have found solutions to problems. The show doesn’t shy away from a lot of the dark stuff going. And yet what the audience is seeing and feeling from the band and from the show, they’re kind of witnessing a solution. We’re not telling them “This is how you fix it.” As they say, show don’t tell. We’re kind of showing them.
The film is dedicated to Jonathan Demme (and Colin Kaepernick). Were you at all mindful of living up to Stop Making Sense?
Yes, that bar has been raised pretty high. But, well, time has passed. I think this show and Spike’s filming of it — it’s very different than what Jonathan did — but I think in some ways it equals it. There was a point during the filming where Spike looked up at the ceiling — he was often in the aisles (dancing) — and he goes, “Jonathan, how we doin’?”
AP: You recently apologised for wearing blackface in a skit for the promotion of Stop Making Sense in the early ’80s. Have you spoken with Lee about that?
Before I made this public statement about this video skit I had done 30-some years ago, I wrote to Spike, I wrote to the band, a couple friends. I said, “Heads up, I did this and I’m going to talk about it.” The reactions I’ve gotten have been very supportive. Spike was just like, “I know you. You’re fine.” The band was kind of the same way. I thought, OK, I can learn from this. It’s possible to be open and own our mistakes and bad judgments, and people will forgive them.
How have you been getting through the pandemic?
I’ve been learning to cook new dishes. Some of them are really successful and some of them are real failures and I go, “I think I gotta eat this anyway.” I’m also busy with new projects. But there are days where I wake up and I go, “What are we doing? Why I am doing anything?”
The music of American Utopia spans much of your life. Do you consider it an encapsulation of you as an artist?
It’s personal but I feel like it’s also universal. I’m using myself as the vehicle but I think I’m telling a human story of a person who begins introverted within themselves and then finds a community and then eventually engages with the whole world around them. Which is a journey that a lot us take.
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