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'Utopia' is nirvana: David Byrne stage show shot by Spike Lee celebrates music, dance and innovation

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Why mince words? “American Utopia” is a freaking blast. 

Written by and built around former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and set afire by the mutant marching band that accompanies him onstage, this Broadway hit is an astonishingly kinetic celebration of music, dance and community. From beginning to end Byrne is talking about and making connections – neural, social and political. 

Splendidly choreographed by Annie-B Parson this show is in constant motion. The 11 musicians who join Byrne aren’t running through your standard rock star moves, they’re criss-crossing the stage, moving in small groups then all at once, locked in unison then flying every which way. The marching band comparison is no joke – five of the 12 musicians on stage are percussionists and the show is a constant juggle of precision and joy. 

“David Byrne’s American Utopia”

Byrne released the album “American Utopia” in 2018; the stage show includes songs from that work and a healthy enough dollop of Talking Heads hits to make it all sound familiar. 

The show starts out with Byrne pondering a model of a brain because of course it does. David Byrne has never been typical. 

The band drifts in as a study in community and contrast. Everybody’s wearing a gray suit, everybody’s barefoot, but the band is a mix of men, women, black, white. Two background singers are unencumbered but the many percussionists can have all manner of contraptions strapped to their bodies or just be hauling around big bass drums to pound on. 

It’s a visual feast made all the more enticing by Spike Lee’s direction. Lee’s camera hovers overhead to catch the coordinated action, but it also comes in from odd angles, zooming towards Byrne, fading off with the music. The camerawork might be overly busy if Lee were shooting a normal stage performance, but here’s he’s just doing his best to keep up, and his best is plenty fine. 

To describe just one number, “I Dance Like This” begins with everyone lying sprawled across the stage. They each rise as Byrne starts showing how he dances, the music becomes absolutely furious and then strobe lights get to flashing, freeze-framing the performers. Then suddenly the music and the strobes completely stop – but everybody keeps right on dancing to their own drummers, before the music and strobes come back for a frenzied end. 

Whew. 

Byrne chats between numbers. There’s a table in the lobby where people can register to vote. He doesn’t advocate for anybody, he’s just into participation, pointing out that only 55 percent of Americans voted in the last national election, while only 20 percent vote in local elections. 

“David Byrne’s American Utopia”

“We gotta do better than 20%, we gotta do better than 55%, too,” he says. 

Byrne also performs Janell Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” shouting the names of black victims – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till and too many others – while Lee flashes portraits on the screen. He’s not shying away from America here. 

Instead he’s trying to put it in perspective. Byrne has always had his own quirky individual alienated perspective of the world, but he’s also always shared that perspective in joyous public celebrations. He’s completely reflective of the yin-yang, personal-communal tensions of American life. 

And he’s ultimately hopeful. 

“Despite all that’s happened, despite all that’s still happening, I think there’s still possibility,” he says near the show’s end. “We’re a work in progress, we’re not fixed. Our brains can change.” 

“American Utopia” reflects that faith in potential, cheers it on and holds it high. 

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

'David Byrne’s American Utopia' 

GRADE: A 

8 p.m. Saturday 

HBO