Monday 14 December 2020

Alternative rock: "David Byrne's American Utopia"

At first it strikes the eye as a strange idea of utopia, characterised less by abundance than drab functionality. American Utopia, Spike Lee's film of David Byrne's live staging of his 2018 album, plays out across a small square space, decked out in neutral colours, on which a small group of men and women congregate in matching grey suits. Sometimes we see them front-on, performing within apparent touching distance of an audibly delighted crowd; sometimes we watch them from above, pulling restrained geometric shapes. Everything we see, however, is determinedly pared-down, self-contained, back-to-basics, an austerity utopia: one of the few striking aspects is that these men and women sport neither shoes nor socks. Found sitting alone at a desk, Byrne himself walks us through the opening number ("Here") as if it were the text of a TED talk on neurobiology, and maintains the air of a Royal Institution lecturer between songs old ("This Must Be The Place", "I Zimbra", "Slippery People"), new ("Everybody's Coming To My House") and in between ("Blind", "Lazy"). The utopia he's attempting to manifest is one of people rather than material things, and it insists upon a diversity of races and genders; it's why a protest song by the pansexual, Afro-futurist Janelle Monáe ("Hell You Talmbout") so happily integrates into this repertoire. The grey-haired elder statesman overseeing it expends far less energy (and hogs far less limelight) than his 1984 incarnation in the great concert film Stop Making Sense. That Byrne was looking to burn down the house, and he appeared capable of generating the light and heat that might bring that to pass. This Byrne is a genial cove, maybe a little burnt by experience, keen to invite folks over to his house - or a theatre rescaled to resemble a front room - without making too much fuss, or drawing undue attention. These are uncertain times for the free-thinking humanist, after all, and besides, he's just happy being part of a crowd, one among many.

That shuffly sort of framing is one respect in which American Utopia differs from its predecessor, recorded when both America and Talking Heads were in their early Eighties pomp. There, we were watching a spectacle building itself from the floor up, becoming more extravagant with each number. (By the finale, Talking Heads were finally bigger than New York: it would only take a song as infernally catchy as "Road to Nowhere" - reprised here, in a notably less ambivalent, openly celebratory key - to make them global megastars.) Here, the band are all on stage with Byrne, instruments strapped to their shoulders or waists to keep them mobile, within the opening ten minutes. Byrne and choreographer Annie-B Parson rehearsed them, achieving the not-small feat of converting session musicians into fully-fledged backing dancers; Lee, caught on his most self-effacing, best behaved form since 2013's Old Boy remake, was then called in to make a document of the event. (The venue was New York's Hudson Theater; in the closing moments, we see Byrne emerging from the stage door and cycling home, as he reportedly did every night.) The new songs, which don't quite have the same wow factor as the canonical classics, could arguably do with a bit more visual pizzazz than we get from watching well-drilled support technicians cavorting around a tightly defined workspace; there are only so many shapes they can pull after a while. But then American Utopia was always conceived as about more than just the music.

For one thing, we get a fuller political perspective than the angular weirdo Byrne of 1984, still prone to giving interviews in blackface, was capable of articulating: the between-song repartee addresses such contemporary issues as voter registration and police shootings. Stop Making Sense was a record of a gig, but American Utopia at times resembles Byrne's characteristically idiosyncratic riposte to the Trump rallies: intentionally modest in scope, comic in its self-mockery. Watch him spoofing his way through the final minute of "Slippery People", and hear out his drolly inclusive intro to "Everybody's Coming to My House", and it's clear to see the extent to which the frontman has become a showman. "I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good," sings Byrne during "I Dance Like This", a hipster's response to Genesis's "I Can't Dance", before continuing "If I could dance better/You know that I would". Yet the lack of exceptionalism there appears key to the utopia: Byrne makes himself small - eschewing the old big suit, becoming part of an ever-shifting chorus line - so as to make greater space for others. And what's really crucial is that even when the music cuts out - as it does during that song - the show goes on, regardless of Trump, Covid, your obstacle of choice. That show now lands among us, on streaming in the absence of unshuttered cinemas, after months of viral videos capturing the joy our fellow shut-ins - and disenfranchised gig-goers - have rediscovered in dancing around bedrooms and kitchens not much smaller than Byrne's stage. If I'm reading this project right, that kind of bliss may only be possible when nine-to-five capitalism is put on hold, life isn't business as usual, and people have the time and energy to cut a rug. Isn't this just a brainiac's rebranding of the message progressive pop has been pushing ever since the countercultural Sixties? Almost certainly. But amid this punishing new world order, sometimes the freedoms we take delight in can be as minimal as kicking off your shoes and socks. And you get very strange looks if you do that in a cinema.

David Byrne's American Utopia is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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