Challenging the Spectacle: David Byrne's American Utopia (2020) - Reviewed

 "It is necessary to clarify the intentions of this cabaret. It is its aim to
remind the world that there are people of independent
minds - beyond war and nationalism - who live for different ideals."
– Hugo Ball

Theorist Guy Debord’s 1967 book Society of the Spectacle is a scathing criticism of our society’s growing obsession with appearances. Considered his seminal work, Debord described what he saw in the post war, image obsessed world of the late ‘60s as “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” What he considered a symptom of our growing consumerism, Society of the Spectacle outlined a societal shift from being, to having, to appearing to have.

Although written within the context of the revolutionary minded France of the late ‘60s, Society of the Spectacle feels like a book highly relevant to the present day. In our social media obsessed culture, where every conceivable idea or experience, artistic, political or otherwise, is recuperated to sell us a consumable identity, genuine human connection has been repurposed as a marketing package constructed for maximum online engagement.  

Courtesy of HBO 

The Punk Rock movement is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  The once subversive art form of the 1970s is now one of several stock identities to be purchased off a rack from a chain store in a massive mall. Listening to artists in this genre is no longer about exploring ideas. It is just another consumable used by the masses to curate their desired persona so one may carve out a place on the ‘coolness’ hierarchy of ultimate fandom. Even bands wanting to challenge this system ultimately become a part of it in order to sell tickets. Interacting with the live music industry has become more about passively gazing upon a packaged brand than genuine counterculture. The ultimate goal is now to draw crowds eager to post their #livemusic pics. I am not above this phenomenon. I have seen scores of live shows and regularly post on social media about them. I too, am breathing what is in the air. 

David Byrne’s American Utopia flies in the face of this glorified spectacle. Evolving from concert tour to Broadway production to film, American Utopia is an example of how art can use the tools of the spectacle to fight it. The stage show has long been a nest for this phenomenon and by stripping it down to only the essentials Byrne is able to create a space for a dialogue on the current state of American culture. 

Courtesy of HBO 

In an interview with NYFF’s Director of Programming Dennis Lim, David Byrne described how his vision for the show had an emphasis on mobility for the performers by removing things like amplifiers, risers, and drum kits. This approach enabled Byrne to create a blank canvas in which to paint the show’s narrative resulting in the sparse simplicity becoming a conduit by which Byrne and Co. can genuinely connect with the audience.   

Instead of emphasis on David Byrne the celebrity, American Utopia engages viewers on a spectrum of topics including brain activity, immigration, inclusivity, civil rights, Dadaism, our mental landscape and the loss of black lives. Byrne’s focus on the issues saturating these times was a driving force in his tapping Spike Lee to direct the film, explaining in the Lim interview, “Spike’s gonna get that, that’s the water Spike swims in.”

Courtesy of HBO

Lee’s intimate knowledge of the choreography is obvious through the manner in which the show is filmed. Together with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Spike Lee attended the show on numerous occasions in order to memorize it and help tell the American Utopia narrative. The result is a cinematically beautiful and intimate film rich with close ups of details that would be missed by those attending the live show. It is evident the costumes and choreography are meant to work in tandem to create large scale moving shapes to support the show’s large scale ideas. However, Spike Lee’s focus on things like a raised foot or a shared smile reveal a warm playfulness between the performers. Therefore, instead of glorifying the production, Lee successfully brings the show down to earth giving viewers an authentic experience. 

Writer and activist James Baldwin once said, “We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.” David Byrne’s American Utopia gently looks us in the face and confronts us these hard questions. Even before a single performer takes the stage, the title American Utopia confronts us with its contradiction. Instead of utopia, we choose to stay adrift in Guy Debord’s spectacle addicted society with “…the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” Standing on the shores is David Byrne’s American Utopia, beckoning us to come in from the seas of our collective sleep and asking, “Well…how did we get here?”  5/5

-Dawn Stronski