A crowded theater. A growing group. The dancers beat the stage in unison. And in the middle of it all: David Byrne.
It wasn’t until February that the Hudson Theater hosted the last sold-out performance of the theatrical version of Byrnes’ 2018 album American Utopia before the pandemic shut down Broadway.
Now, in one of the few saving graces this year of cultural shutdowns, the show has been turned into a movie directed by Spike Lee.
Reviewing American Utopia on Broadway, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it an expansive and dazzling concert, and added that Byrne places the central principle of reaching out to a world outside your mind into a practice. dynamic sensory on stage.
This search for connection has taken on even more urgency and significance now that the coronavirus is separating audiences and artists. Anyone Watching The Movie (premiering October 17 on HBO and HBO Max) will feel a deep nostalgia for the power of live theater.
A concert filmed with songs by Byrnes’ band Talking Heads may seem like a bookend for the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. But American creative team Utopia Byrne and Lee as well as cinematographer Ellen Kuras and the show’s original choreographer Annie-B Parson were focused on a sense of community and community energy even before the pandemic hit. .
American Utopia, Byrne said, is about a person who begins to live in their head. And then find a connection with a small community that would be the group, and that person, at the end of the day, connects with the bigger world, the larger community, engaging with bigger issues. Dressed in a t-shirt and his signature shocking white hair, on a Zoom call from his Manhattan home, he added, It’s a look at my story, but it’s also a story that many people have lived or are going through.
The film features him and 11 musicians and dancers and draws on songs from the album as well as some classics from Talking Heads and a powerful cover of Janelle Mones protest song, Hell You Talmbout. Unique to the film, this issue also features family members holding photos of loved ones killed by police violence.
The lyrics on the shows touch on everything from brain function to politics and social justice. Parsons’ gestural choreography adds a dimension that helps structure the show.
Byrne said he contacted Lee about the making of the film even before it was on Broadway, while he was in a studio in Boston. Lees’ visual style was a draw, but there was also the fact that the material raises a lot of social issues. That’s a big part of what the series is, Byrne said. And I was like, well, sure, you know, Spike is going to get it. He added: It’s not a conventional narrative, but there is an arc. And I think I thought hell saw that too and actually saw the band as a character.
Lee signed after watching just two performances. I knew right away on the morning show that there was something I wanted to do, the director, wearing his trademark cap, told Zoom from his Brooklyn office. I was very much in tune with the ideas David was playing with. It looped in Kuras, who worked on several Lees films, dating back to the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls.
There are similarities to Stop Making Sense, which Jonathan Demme has achieved with great success. The new show also begins with Byrne alone on stage, the group slowly filling the space. There are also combinations and propulsive percussions. But what is most remarkable is the energy of Byrnes. Stop Making Sense review in 1984, Roger Ebert wrote: The peak moments of the films come from the mere physical presence of Byrnes. He jogs in place with his sidemen; he goes around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and to make music.
It’s the same exuberance Lee and Kuras capture in American Utopia, only now Byrne is 68 years old.
Lee and Kuras, however, avoided drawing too many ties to the Demmes movie. They wanted this film, they said, to be stand-alone.
Speaking from Nyack, NY, Kuras explained: Spike told me, I want to come in and I want to do it in a different way. We know we have a precedent. We both talked about it. Instead, Lee really wanted to honor the choreography, wanted to honor the sense of community, she said.
Of course, Lee added, Byrne was proud of the previous film. It’s his heritage, he says. But he’s an artist. The great artists continue.
One of the highlights of the new film centers on the moving cover of Mones Hell You Talmbout and the naming of victims of police violence. It was Lee who brought their loved ones. Here is the opportunity to show off their faces, Lee said. And for their loved ones to support their loved ones who are no longer there. It is very, very moving. He added: What’s so sad is that every time Ellen and I went to a show we would go backstage and tell David that there was someone else to add. Even after we finished filming, you know, we had to add, George Floyd; It’s very deep.
Another element that sets the film apart from the stage version are the visuals of Parsons’ choreography. Lee said he thinks a lot about musicals and Busby Berkeley. My mom trained me in musicals from a young age, he said. And I understand that in order to do choreography, the camera has to follow the dancers.
The camera will move, he said, explaining that the choreography told us where the camera should go.
Particularly striking is the way the camera follows the dancers and musicians from above. To get these shots, Lee and Kuras watched the show together several times and came up with locations for 11 cameras. One is located at the back of the stage. We wanted to break the fourth wall, Lee said, so we feel like we are part of it, so we were inside.
Filming took place over two days and Lee said the performers’ energy was contagious. So much so that during some acts he said he couldn’t stay in the basement where he was watching the shoot. For some acts, he said, I would run upstairs and jump up and down with the audience. I’m just burning the house down.
Now, months later, Lee and Byrne reflect on how much has changed for artists and the city they inhabit. Byrne has led the cast on impromptu bicycle trips to Staten Island, Queens and other boroughs. It’s a way to stay connected until they can get back to the theater.
Byrne and Lee both pushed back against the idea that after being rocked by the pandemic, the city as a cultural capital is in decline. New York went through 9/11 recession, Sandy, Lee said. You know, New York will never be over. Were built for it. The artists will tell the real story of what happened during this crazy time we live in. There is great art that will come out of it. I am convinced that the artists will again show the way.
Byrne added that artists and performers have our kind of civic duty as citizens just to respond to the world we see around us and that is what we do. Then again he said: I have felt this more in recent years than I have in the past. It could be my age, it could be what’s going on.
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