Jump to content

David's Byrne's American Utopia


Andrew
 Share

Recommended Posts

Has anyone else seen this?  It's a worthy successor to Stop Making Sense (in our Top 100), with David Byrne back on stage and captured by an expert director (Spike Lee this time).  The choreography again is expert, the music making superb, by his 11-person backup band (7 percussionists!).

The two negative reviews at RT (including dear old Armond White at the National Review) critique it for political preachiness.  I thought it succeeded in blending the timely with the timeless, and in the Q&A for the NYFF (on YouTube), Byrne speaks persuasively to the artist's duty to comment on the moment they live in.  I love, too, how Byrne's curation of his lifelong catalogue, along with a Janelle Monae song, form a coherent trajectory about the joy and beauty of connection, and how this can/should effect social change.  

Right now, this stands as my favorite 2020 film.  Here's my full review: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/2020/10/diy-virtual-film-fest-part-4-david-byrnes-american-utopia/

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Put me on the very short list of people who were underwhelmed by this. I liked the music (obviously) and some of the staging is inventive, but I didn't connect with any of the vitality that other people are describing. Furthermore, I do think the political messaging is distracting.

Here's the thing: no one in that audience and no one watching this movie are going to walk away from it with any new convictions. It will either confirm their liberal worldview or come across as a bit awkward and cringeworthy. I don't see anything radical or celebratory or new or connected about talking about how more people should vote, describing the Women's March of 2017 as some great revolutionary act, gesturing at fascism embodied by Trump (without actually saying his name) or even singing the Monae song. It's all very par for the course of liberal entertainment in 2020.

Also, I do think Spike Lee stretches credibility in some of his filmmaking by trying to paint this specific audience as more inclusive or diverse than it is. For instance, one of the sole cutaways to an audience member during the bulk of the film is to an older Asian-American lady who's really into the music. It's a great little shot when isolated, but when you connect this with the message of "America for Everyone" that Byrne is talking about from the stage, you get this sense that this connectiveness is something that crosses all lines of class and race... until the lights come up at the end of the film and you realize the vast majority of the audience is older and white and presumably rich, so as to afford these tickets. I don't blame Spike for trying to inject some diversity into the product (something the performers represent better than the audience) but presenting this collective experience in such a way as to suggest that this is what the future of America looks like and then to reveal that the people taking part in this message of inclusiveness are pretty homogeneous kind of sums up why this isn't an exercise in radical empathy or a true look at utopianism at all.

TL:DR: Nice music, but lose the message and let the music do the speaking and this gets a lot stronger.

Edit: Vadim Rizov's review at Filmmaker Magazine is the best one I've read: https://filmmakermagazine.com/110253-tiff-2020-i-david-byrnes-american-utopia/

Edited by Aren Bergstrom

"Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film." - Werner Herzog

3brothersfilm.com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

But how many people in 2020 are walking away with new convictions from any artistic engagement these days?  Hopefully, some - maybe some of the folks here who earlier this year voiced their lack of knowledge on transgender issues have watched one or more of the excellent docs that I've reviewed this year, and come away enlightened.  But overall, Republicans have Fox News, OAN, Parler, the Federalist Society, Clint Eastwood, and the legendary auteur Dinesh D'Souza; reality-based individuals get everything else.  Maybe this is a sign of the US/Canada difference, but when we've had a Gaslighter-in-Chief for the past four years, the arts have been an essential medicine for me against the steady bombardment of "well, Obama separated Latinx parents from their kids, too" and other such bogus messages.  As in Springsteen's Broadway show, I'm grateful for the artists who have been more overt in speaking to their principles.

I think, too, these past four years have been a wake-up to systemic racism for many progressive Americans.  Sure, us white folks should've been listening to black voices well before Ferguson, but it's taken voices like Ava Du Vernay in 13th and the Central Park Five dramatization - not to mention the footage of Ferguson, Charlottesville, and the unending parade of videos of police violence in 2020 - to bring more people to the streets.  I'm sure I'm not alone in that my first demonstration was the Women's March in DC on Jan 21, 2017, while my first protest in support of Black Lives were the day after Charlottesville.

All this to say I'm grateful for David Byrne being overt in his politics.  I think he's part of the masses who've felt compelled to raise their voices in protest, now that Republicans are saying out loud what they were comfortable saying off-mike or through their policies in years past.  Sure, Byrne's humanism has always been present in his lyrics and music, but I understand his need to broadcast his ideals in this moment.

Also, I'm not sure that criticizing an audience accomplishes anything meaningful.  David Byrne doesn't get to choose who likes his music, and therefore who will attend his concerts.  Likewise, I've seen enough poor people in my clinical practice who live in single-wides, yet have spiffy pickups or souped-up sports cars, to stop judging people for spending money on what brings them pleasure.  (Back when I was hemorrhaging funds a decade ago from my failed efforts to start a private practice, I still splurged on a trip to Philly with my boys to see a Peter Gabriel concert, because we all loved his music.)  Similarly, I don't presume that attendance at a Broadway show implies wealth that most people lack.

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have to say Andrew, I enjoyed American Utopia because I enjoy Byrne's music, but even on that level, I felt that the film was good but not deserving the over-the-top raves that it's been receiving. I'm going to write something a little longer for our website, but as I said on Letterboxd, "the one thing I can say is that contrasting this to Stop Making Sense [a masterpiece of concert film] only hammers home the miracle that is Demme's film. Take for instance, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody):" the version here pales next to the version in the 1984 film; it's too polished and its treatment so rooted in America’s specific ailments of the moment that it ceases to be the primal cry for connection it was in the original." I will chalk some of this up to being the fact that Talking Heads wasn't *just* Byrne, and we're missing the rest of the band. The reality is that some of these songs are so good, they're going to be showstoppers no matter what.

But, I don't think I'm criticizing the audience, but rather the purpose and execution of the idea when I say that "in every instance that Stop Making Sense confounds our assumptions and sense that we have it all figured out, this preaches to an audience certain of the rightness of their perspective." I can imagine an overtly political music film, with roughly the same messages — generally very worthy messages I should add — but that manages to stir more deeply.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, Andrew said:

But how many people in 2020 are walking away with new convictions from any artistic engagement these days?

This might be an example where our perspectives are too dissimilar to find common ground, because this just sounds like pandering to me, which I don't find compelling at all in art.

2 hours ago, Andrew said:

All this to say I'm grateful for David Byrne being overt in his politics.  I think he's part of the masses who've felt compelled to raise their voices in protest, now that Republicans are saying out loud what they were comfortable saying off-mike or through their policies in years past.  Sure, Byrne's humanism has always been present in his lyrics and music, but I understand his need to broadcast his ideals in this moment.

See, I think this sums it up. He is broadcasting his politics and while I find his politics generally inoffensive, I don't find them refreshing or revolutionary or stirring. And so I don't appreciate his music getting bogged down by what I see as fairly amorphous political commentary that parallels everything I've heard since Trump took office. Trump being bad doesn't make everything that gestures against him and his policies good. And furthermore, it doesn't make any art that engages with it good art.

2 hours ago, Andrew said:

Also, I'm not sure that criticizing an audience accomplishes anything meaningful.

I'm not criticizing the audience, but Spike Lee's attempts to make the audience seem like something it is not. Sure, I'm probably being presumptuous in my comment about wealth, but there's a huge difference between this crowd and the one that would've made up the protests in Charlottesville, for instance.

At the end of the day, I don't find the film's presentation of these messages all that compelling. The music is good, but the other stuff is fairly par for the course, and I don't give a movie automatic credit for simply agreeing with my own politics.

"Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film." - Werner Herzog

3brothersfilm.com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

21 hours ago, Aren Bergstrom said:

This might be an example where our perspectives are too dissimilar to find common ground, because this just sounds like pandering to me, which I don't find compelling at all in art.

I was probably too broad and nihilistic in my statement, in hindsight.  My criticism here is not about the art itself, but about the audience, in 2020.  At least in the United States, I perceive such a degree of polarization that opposing sides are talking past each other, with little to no meaningful engagement or persuasion taking place.  This isn't to say individuals can't be changed by art, events, or political debate - I'm not the same person I was since reading Baldwin, Coates, and Kendi; one of my family members who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Biden in 2020 - but it seems like less of this is happening in 2020 than it was in, say, 2000.  I think people have always tended to engage more with the arts and media to have their perspectives confirmed, rather than to have their worldview altered, but with the wildly divergent streams of Fox/OAN/Parler vs the US mainstream media, I perceive this is happening now more than ever in my lifetime. 

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

Link to comment
Share on other sites

21 hours ago, Aren Bergstrom said:

See, I think this sums it up. He is broadcasting his politics and while I find his politics generally inoffensive, I don't find them refreshing or revolutionary or stirring. And so I don't appreciate his music getting bogged down by what I see as fairly amorphous political commentary that parallels everything I've heard since Trump took office. Trump being bad doesn't make everything that gestures against him and his policies good. And furthermore, it doesn't make any art that engages with it good art.

I would hope this is so self-evident that it wouldn't need to be spelled out.  See Bill Maher's "comedy."  Sure, he's preaching to his choir, but he stopped being edgy or funny long ago.  Or the film I watched last night, Uncle Frank.  I've loved much of Alan Ball's output (Six Feet Under is one of my all-time favorite TV shows), but while I'm sympathetic to the straits of his main character in his latest (a gay man trying to outrace his homophobic, Bible Belt upbringing), it felt like lazy, cliched filmmaking and storytelling on almost every level.  

Again, maybe some of this speaks to the contrasting experiences north and south of the border.  But when our POTUS is hate-tweeting against athletes taking a knee during the National Anthem, I find it inspiring, inspired, and even courageous that Byrne and his troupe would take a knee to an image of Kaepernick while singing "How am I not your brother?/How are you not like me?/Maybe someday we can stand together/Not afraid of what our eyes might see."

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...