Howard Hampton on Spike Lee’s American Utopia

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Howard Hampton on Spike Lee’s American Utopia


October 16, 2020



Spike Lee, American Utopia, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Center: David Byrne.

IS AMERICAN UTOPIA A STATE OF MIND or a state of obliviousness? A bohemian home celebration transplanted to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or a cunningly intellectualized, Dadaist-turned-soccer-dad musical of It’s a Wonderful Life? This live performance movie collaboration between singer-conceptualist David Byrne and director Spike Lee is “of the moment” however feels both openly or haplessly out of sync with the precise America. In the lifetime between the present’s Broadway run again in late-’19/early-’20 and this doomstruck October, social uplift wrapped in musical euphoria has turn out to be suspect. “Precarity” having usurped “wellness” as society’s watchword, brainy religion and optimism go down like cotton sweet doused with hand sanitizer, and chances are you’ll end up hit by waves of ambivalence together with the undulating rhythms.

Byrne and Lee have taken a measured stab at producing a unifying secular-gospel car—a completely rationalized bookend to Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme’s fiendishly thrilling live performance movie of Byrne and the remainder of Talking Heads at their jumpy, otherworldly apogee. On knowledgeable, nuts-and-bolts degree, they’ve succeeded. Byrne has organized the songs for pinpoint directness and readability, sharp as a thumbtack. Lee captures the singer and the swirling eleven-piece, percussion-heavy, multicultural ensemble darting round him in all their choreographed specificity: With his high-quality democratic eye for personalities, the attentiveness to the formal and casual qualities of motion and design, he subtly fortifies the metaphorical means Byrne and firm go about enjoying, singing, and dance-drumming like a barefoot nation in movement. Human our bodies at relaxation and on the go, imbued with objective, dignity, and wit. Musical and bodily efficiency that’s tight and resilient as a speaking drum.

But then comes Byrne himself, stopping the music lifeless to speak at us all funny-serious like, musing about our brains, explaining totally different stuff, politely ready for applause after pat-yourselves-on-the-back traces (Let’s hear it for the immigrants! How about that James Baldwin! “Lifelong oppression!” Voter registration, girls and gents!). It’s destined to be the simplest PBS Pledge Drive in historical past, however for all of the gestures of outreach, it’s too tailor-made for Byrne’s demographic—that educated elite who prize hip sensibility and expansive style however can’t assist viewing the working- and underclasses as a Third World populace. That aggressive passport-to-the-Other-America vibe, together with an upscale idealism that makes decency appear to be a shrewd retirement funding, places a damper on even the Juju slink of “Toe Jam.” I’ve beloved David Byrne from his first recorded yelp, I like Spike Lee (the final twenty minutes or so of twenty fifth Hour is a magnificently scuffed, undaunted imaginative and prescient of a reborn America), however right here Byrne’s conception bins each of them in. Maybe that is the “new normal” I hold listening to about, however I don’t recall a live performance or live performance film that left me so break up down the center between pure enjoyment and eye-rolling disenchantment: of two minds about each notice.


Spike Lee, American Utopia, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. David Byrne.

American Utopia’s guideline is to submerge and resurface Byrne inside that precision group’s cocoon, a snaking drum line used for example a mix algebra downside and civics lesson. Bundling his extra imposing older songs with newer materials, he imagines a bridge to a born-again nation within the form of an extended inspirational arc. He’s turned the songs into speaking factors, illustrations of social trauma and chance and the way or why “We gotta do better.” Just a few land with a thud: “Don’t Worry About the Government” is handled like a musty curio as an alternative of the grand autism-spectrum anthem it was on Talking Heads ’77. The one-two stumble of “I Dance Like This” and the insufferably ethereal, indifferent “Bullet” (that includes a few of Lee’s greatest digicam compositions, the photographs turn out to be austere salt within the sterilized wound) is the low level. “One Fine Day” and “Once in a Lifetime” are the highs: Tapping into untethered currents of thriller and beauty, floating above the billboards, they’re reminders of depths you’ll be able to’t contact with TED or pep talks. “Once in a Lifetime” was a signature second in Stop Making Sense and it’s once more right here. The singer Demme filmed was a person each possessed and dispossessed, an evangelist falling backwards into the void. The professorial man Lee shoots is abashed, pedagogic, and equivocating, a sanctified heel slipping between an overconfident previous, a destabilized current, and a radically unsure future, once more asking the identical timeless query: “How did I get here?

Well, How the hell did we? That is what American Utopia performs off of, dodges (“I’m a tumbler,” brags Byrne’s trickster “Born Under Punches” persona), dances with. It’s a ballet—and pre-pandemic mental buffet—of excellent intentions, magical considering pressured to straddle the chasm between a boatload of aspirational bourgeois consciousness-raising/connection-making and the contagious nihilism that’s gone airborne like so many droplets of aerosolized rage. “Burning Down the House” arrives late and erupts with the incandescence of a Hindenburg dance celebration: Lee opens up the body to point out a crowd bopping like blind mice at an evening rally, catching the band in an overhead shot marching in pinwheel formation. (The picture caught in my mind, and for a split-second, I questioned if the band may morph the Busby Berkeley sample right into a swastika à la Mel Brooks. That might need upped the discomfort temperature sufficient to make the viewers sweat in additional than an aerobic-cathartic means.)


Spike Lee, American Utopia, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. David Byrne.

Lee will get plenty of pleasurable mileage out of the band and their totally different personalities/nationalities: Especially dancer/singer Chris Giarmo—he bobs and weaves from background to foreground like Byrne’s impish, polymorphous shadow—and Columbian-Canadian percussionist/dancer/singer Jacqueline Acevedo, who brings a shot of ’40s movie-star glamour (Rita Hayworth as grasp drummer) to the proceedings. But as Byrne sheepishly admits right here, he’s who he’s, and in hitting his marks he’s additionally hitting the boundaries of the place his artwork is at now. He needs to combine the “say their names” fierceness of Janelle Monée’s “Hell You Talmbout” into his viewers’s worldview. Without disrupting their consolation zones, although. It isn’t dangerous religion, precisely, however he’s bitten off greater than he’s ready or prepared to alter.

Part of it’s the occasions—the sense everybody and every little thing is confused to the breaking level, so why ought to artwork or artists catch a advantage of the doubt? But additionally, over the lengthy haul of his profession, David Byrne grew to become an establishment. And whereas Spike Lee remains to be in contact along with his outdated underdog Mars Blackmon aspect, he isn’t going to push Byrne any additional than he did Michael Jordan. One factor that made Stop Making Sense a real American traditional was how the act of fusing Fela Kuti’s African aesthetics with the white-on-white pitter-patterns of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (amongst many different influences and equally impressed thefts) was a unusually humane gesture: a rapturous reckoning with transcendence and nihilism sans explanations or working directions. 

The greatest aspect of American Utopia is how labor-intensive and demanding the efficiency is—these women and men doing extremely expert bodily labor with a way of deep satisfaction. The different unexpectedly rewarding factor is how kid-friendly it’s: This mission might need taken flight if he and Lee had leaned right into a Pee-wee’s Americana elasticity, beefed up the roles of Giarmo, Acevedo, and the remaining, and thrown that gray-suited piety out the stained-glass window.

American Utopia might be obtainable to stream on HBO Max beginning October 17.