“American Utopia” is the medicine you deserve.
And the Spike Lee snub you should be lamenting.
The specter of DA FIVE BLOODS loomed large over the past month. Not for great reasons, unfortunately — maybe I’m wrong. My fascination with awards season lies in it’s machinations — it’s capacity to distill the bulk of online engagement and throttle it into a handful of conversations.
The Oscar’s overarching cultural imperatives come to mind — #OscarsSoWhite; Agism; Under-the-table brokering; The apparent correlation between awards campaign spending and Oscar night success. This cycle’s batch admittedly yielded little of importance, save the controversy surrounding Spike Lee’s latest Netflix-funded Vietnam war epic.
My two cents: DA FIVE BLOODS is Lee’s late-stage triumph. An emphatic, angry, and emotionally riveting pice of cinema brimming with structural integrity unknown in this modern cinema-scape. It’s also a misshapen, bloated and self-serving mess. One that wouldn’t pass muster within the studio system, but perfect for an online distributor like Netflix. Don’t even get me started on Delroy Lindo.
But them’s the brakes, right? Rather than fret about Oscar follies, might I suggest you visit ( or revisit) Spike Lees true late-stage masterwork. I’m talking about 2020’s concert showpiece, AMERICAN UTOPIA.
AMERICAN UTOPIA is the brain child of the wonderfully enigmatic David Byrne. A joyous odyssey through the Talking Heads’ greatest hits with a handful of Byrne’s solo material sprinkled throughout. Familiar with STOP MAKING SENSE, are you? You’ll fancy this one. Unfamiliar with that Talking Heads concert film? This one’s certainly for you.
The Spike Lee directed film makes no bones about its simple, humanistic message. Through the alchemic fusion of song and dance, we can inspire change and prosperity, together. Truth and beauty are tangible only as a result of our concerted efforts. It’s a notion that permeates Byrne’s discography — that music transcends language and sovereignty.
A sparse script by Byrne ties the loose pieces of narrative material together into a concert film that proceeds in standard fashion. “HERE,” a techno-future number, leads with a hard, rhythmic exploration of the human cerebrum; it’s wonders actualized on stage by Byrnes wielding a prop of the human brain. A taste of things to come.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (NAIVE MELODY) follows shortly on a mellowed out, romantic note, putting Byrne’s aged, smoky vocal cords to work. I ZIMBRA, SLIPPERY PEOPLE, and GLASS, CONCRETE & STONE hit hard thereafter, reminding us of what made The Talking Heads one of the stand-out rock groups of the 70–80s.
Performers don matching dress jackets and slacks colored in drab grey hues that mirror a small, confined stage. An artistic decision that invokes the sterile look of Jacque Tati’s PLAYTIME. Theres a clear intentionality at work in the set design. To rely on color and and the surface spectacle is to distract from the orchestration of physicality and instrumentation on stage.
And speaking of instrumentality, AMERICAN UTOPIA’S casting feels just as diverse and inspired as it’s instrumental make up. An eclectic assortment of musicians and performers that hail from all over the world maneuver themselves through show-stopping numbers sure to excite those who couldn’t make the trip to Broadway.
AMERICAN UTOPIA is not a film devoid of politics. This is a Spike Lee production, after all. Where as STOP MAKING SENSE felt too preoccupied in 80’s spectacle to manage a concerted message, AMERICAN UTOPIA finds its vitality in the perennial issues that define an election cycle. Lee and Byrne touch on the importance of voting rights, the ominous specter of climate change, and even police brutality.
What Spike Lee, David Byrne, and company managed here is mesmerizing and inspiring. In a year devoid of cinematic pleasures, AMERICAN UTOPIA stands alone on its tiny rock on HBO. And this, despite an absence of overt visual flare. How can we make sense of this incongruity? Perhaps Byrne was on to something when he claims in the film that, in the end, people are more interesting than a beautiful sunset, or a bag of potato chips. Am I stretching too far?
AMERICAN UTOPIA is a comforting delight that’s just as accessible as any of your comfort-food albums enjoyed in the comfort of your home. After all, this is the closest many of us will get to Broadway, New York. That’s fine, so long as distributors like HBO and Netflix continue to facilitate the greatest of our artistic minds in the wake of a shattering pandemic.
And though the light of our collective tunnels shine bright and true, we’d do right to recall those films and television shows that nurtured us in their warm embrace and reinvigorated our belief in tomorrow.
You can catch AMERICAN UTOPIA on HBO Max.