David Byrne’s American Utopia plays on HBO Oct. 17. Spike Lee directs the film, based on Byrne’s Broadway show that ran late 2019 to early 2020 at the Hudson Theatre in New York.
Byrne, former frontman for Talking Heads, is joined by 11 musicians, singers and dancers. All wear gray suits.
Seeing the film at home is a different experience from seeing the show in the theater, said exec producer David Sirulnick, as Lee comes up with some compelling shots. “You can see things through a camera lens that you’d never get from your seat,” he said. “There are things you can’t see exactly if you’re sitting in the orchestra or in the first mezzanine.”
There are a bunch of Talking Heads songs, including “I Zimbra”, “This Must Be the Place,” “Burning Down the House” and, of course, “Once in a Lifetime.” Most of the tracks are Byrne solo songs.
He’s a peculiar performer, not offering the shiniest voice or slickest dance moves, and not possessing a ton of charisma. But Byrne is nonetheless fun to watch, is charming in his own unique way, and commands a highly entertaining show.
The New York Times refers to “Byrne’s vaguely folksy if entirely self-conscious presence, and how this once and future art-school kid continues to vibe more like Mister Rogers than a veteran rock star.”
American Utopia is produced by Byrne’s Todomundo and Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks in partnership with Participant, River Road Entertainment and Warner Music Entertainment. RadicalMedia executive produces.
Sirulnick said the producers’ mission was, “how do we come up with something cinematic and additive to the experience of seeing it in the room?”
He described the show as “anchored in the now” and “a statement for the time.” The film was shot in February, before our nation was turned upside down by the pandemic and protests. Yet it still feels in the moment, as American Utopia touches on police brutality, immigration, climate change and the election.
American Utopia is scheduled to head back to Broadway in fall 2021. In the meantime, one can see it at home. “It’s a reminder of something we’re not able to do right now, the shared theater, community experience,” said Sirulnick.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.