Spike Lee's David Byrne Concert Film, American Utopia, Gets a Release Date at Toronto International Film Festival and on HBO - Here's What We Know So Far

Spike Lee and David Byrne have both made careers out of bold, medium-bending artistic experimentation. Lee's eclectic film career has crossed between narrative films, documentaries, music videos, and filmed Broadway plays. Byrne's music has touched nearly every genre, beginning with his groundbreaking and unclassifiable Talking Heads, and along the way he also made the uniquely bizarre movie musical True Stories, and collaborated with Jonathan Demme on what is generally agreed to be the best concert film ever made (or at least one of the top two or three), Stop Making Sense. Now, the two artists have collaborated for the first time, and the resulting film - a Spike Lee-directed concert film of David Byrne's American Utopia tour/Broadway-residency - has a release date and a runtime.

The Toronto International Film Festival announced today that Lee and Byrne's American Utopia will open the festival on September 10th, and will also debut on HBO simultaneously. The 45th TIFF will naturally be quite different from previous years of the festival, due to COVID: much of its programming will shift to digital, although the current plan is that the festival will still include a smaller in-person-event portion as well. It is unclear if American Utopia is currently planned to screen digitally, but its in-person screening is meant to be the main opening-night event for the festival. How much plans might change between now and September may be largely up to the virus, but considering that the festival is in Canada where the pandemic is under better control, the odds of the in-person premiere happening seem at least fairly good (though of course Americans presumably will not be able to attend, as the border will likely still be closed). At the very least, viewers everywhere will be able to enjoy the concert film's HBO debut on the same day, which presumably will include HBO Max as well. As for what we can expect from the film itself? Here's what we know so far.

The film of American Utopia is the culmination of a pretty amazing career resurgence for David Byrne; while the singer/songwriter has pretty consistently been a well-respected musical force with a passionate following over the years, the journey that lead to this film has unquestionably been his biggest pop-cultural impact since his Talking Heads days. American Utopia began as his critically-acclaimed 2018 studio album, which in turn lead to a tour which will surely go down in musical history. For the American Utopia tour, Byrne wanted to create a truly one-of-a-kind concert experience, the likes of which no one in the audience would have ever seen before. Working with choreographer Annie-B Parson, he created a show in which an 11-piece band is totally wireless and handheld, dancing through elaborate choreography while playing their instruments, on a bare stage sculpted by movement and light. The show is absolutely breathtaking - I was fortunate enough to see it in Detroit - and it was completely deserved when NME dubbed it "the best live show of all time." It did so unbelievably well that he continued it around the world for over a year, before doing a four-month Broadway residency, which was supposed to come back for an encore this September before COVID changed those plans.

During the planning for his elaborate vision, the American Utopia tour became so much more than just a tour supporting an album: it is a sprawling summary of Byrne's entire body of work. Nearly every song from the album is of course on the set list, including fantastic singles like Every Day is a Miracle and Everybody's Coming to My House which find Byrne still in top songwriting form after 40 years. But the set list also includes A LOT of re-orchestrated Talking Heads songs, ranging from the essential classics that you would expect to hear, like Burning Down the House, Once in a Lifetime, and This Must be the Place, to less single-y fan-favorites that you might not, like Slippery People, Blind, and Born Under Punches. The show also includes everything in-between, like songs from his collaborations with Fatboy Slim, St. Vincent, and Brian Eno. Just as Stop Making Sense was the definitive document of Talking Heads and their body of work by that point, the American Utopia tour is the definitive document of David Byrne's body of work by this point. According to TIFF's web site, Spike Lee's film of the tour clocks in at 135 minutes - and while that may be longer than a typical night on the tour, it isn't that much longer; Byrne and his band played for nearly two hours every night, with the stamina and intensity of a man half his age.

Considering that Byrne's previous theatrically-released concert film, the Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense, holds such a monumental stature in both the film and music worlds as arguably the greatest concert film ever, it wouldn't be unfair to say that American Utopia has a lot to live up to. That's probably why Byrne made a point of choosing such a unique auteur at the top of his own game to direct. Lee shot the film at the beginning of 2020, while Da 5 Bloods was in post-production and he was still riding high off of the critical and commercial success of BlacKKKlansman. Lee has never been one to stay in any one area of filmmaking for long, though, so following up two hit films with a concert-film (not to mention a Netflix series and several shorts made in-between) definitely seems like his eclectic style. And if there's anyone who can make sure that American Utopia is very much its own thing, and not just a 35-years-later sequel to Stop Making Sense, it is a filmmaker as singular in his vision as Lee.

While their approaches and tones are very different, Byrne and Lee also both share a fascination with the complicated psyche of America. As the title of the show implies, the general theme of Byrne's collection of songs is an examination of the complicated and contradictory psyche and cultural zeitgeist of a country capable of both beautiful optimism and profound horror. As he toured, Byrne released installments of a project called "Reasons to be Cheerful," finding and highlighting the work of activists who show that even in this profoundly dark time, there is hope for a better future beyond the darkness, and at every show he had a table in the lobby where people could register to vote. The show is absolutely political, and certainly philosophical, although it is both of these things in a very strange, skewed, often rather opaque David Byrne way ("Now a dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car, and we in turn are limited by what it is we are. We are dogs in our own paradise, in a theme park all our own..."). It is ultimately hopeful and optimistic, but also realistic about the horrors and injustices that exist in modern America. Hopeful but certainly not naive: he ends every performance with a call to action in the form of a cover of Janelle Monáe's Hell You Talmbout, a protest anthem made up of the names of all the black men and women killed by police in recent years (the lyrics for which he and Monáe sadly had to update several times across American Utopia's almost two years of touring and Broadway). 

Given that he and Spike Lee explore similar themes in very different ways in their respective work, it will be fascinating to see how Lee works with this show, and brings his own philosophy to the table. The results are sure to be fascinating, and quite possibly a concert film good enough to give Stop Making Sense a run for its money. We have less than two months until we get to find out for ourselves on September 10th.

In the mean time, if you missed the tour and the Broadway residency, here is a sample of what the American Utopia tour was like, from the live TV broadcast of the tour's Lollapalooza Chile date in 2018.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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