David Byrne is considered a master of perfectly designed worlds. The concert film Stop Making Sense, with his band Talking Heads in 1984, symbolyzed how careful he is with his shows, bringing in band members one by one to stress on how each contributes to the harmonies of a song.
Documented by Spike Lee in a film of the same name, Byrne’s latest tour American Utopia due out on HBO on October 17. With this new product, Byrne tries to construct a new musical universe once again, making jolly music and dancing in lockstep with barefoot artists in gray suits. However, as its title suggests, Byrne also wants to create a better world beyond the concert venue.
American Utopia was the opening-night feature at Toronto International Film Festival this month, which starts out every year’s fall movie season with big premieres and projects. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the hibernation of the industry, Toronto International Film Festival this year screened just 50 new films (compared with more than 300 last year). With the United States being in the midst of an election season, it’s not surprising that some of the most compelling films confront the idealistic notion of America, and how promises of justice are so often blunted by the grim realities of poverty, racism, and polarization.
This tension is at the heart of Byrne’s film since his distress is over our disconnected modern world. He champions the joys of collaboration and communality throughout the show. He notes that most of the performers are immigrants. He decries America’s low voting numbers. He informs the audience that they can register to vote on-site when the concert is over. The film builds to a cover of Hell You Talmbout – Janelle Monáe’s protest song – as well as performers chant the names of Black people killed by police or died in their custody.