Ever since the pandemic darkened theaters earlier this season, sending the whole performing arts universe into a devastating state of limbo, we have seen all manner of innovative digital replacements: Digital dancing seasons, smart musical mashups, a live-captured variant of”Hamilton.”
A number of these are great, some good. Yet none have matched the visceral experience a lot of people crave so deeply: live performance, at a theater. And frankly, how can anything come near?
Well, now we’ve Spike Lee’s mesmerizing movie version of David Byrne’s terrific Broadway concert”American Utopia,” that feels thrillingly alive, so you might forget you are not at a theater. Or maybe you’ll feel as the point has been raised out of its moorings and delivered directly to your living area — or, as Byrne could favor, into your mind. Whatever the case, this hypnotic movie experience is a badly needed shot in the arm for each of us — music fans, theater fans, dance fans, culture fans, life fans. It is also among the greatest concert films in recent memory.
Obviously, “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” a leading Broadway occurring that has been due to come back to the Hudson Theatre this autumn, feels like much more than a concert. It is predicated on Byrne’s songs, yes, out of his 2018 record of the same title but also other solo work and a few legendary Talking Heads tracks. But that is only the launch stage.
The series, which you can broadly describe as an expression of community and connectedness, is full of pungent Byrne-ian comment, on everything from brain work to Dadaism to climate change. “Meeting people is tough,” he muses at one stage.
An essential element of this show’s achievement is its hugely gifted multicultural supporting cast of 11 musicians and musicians, who hail from Brooklyn to Brazil. Dressed like Byrne at silver-gray matches and bare feet, they perform interesting percussion devices, and sing and dance; everybody here does double or triple duty. Standouts include the lush Bobby Wooten III on bass along with the tasteful Angie Swan on guitar.
Then there is the endlessly inventive choreography from Annie-B Parson, maybe not so much dance as a holistic method of motion performed joyfully by direct author Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. “I dance like that since it seems so damn good,” moves the Byrne tune” that I Dance Like This,” and yes it will feel damn great, both to see and to emulate. Incidentally, go right ahead and attempt to make it through this movie without dance yourself.
Lee’s cameras always find exciting and new angles on the activity (the cinematography is by Ellen Kuras) — overhead, under, behind the actors or half of an inch out of their faces. And we never glance a camera, although 11 operators were included.
The set is yummy and fashionable, surrounded by shimmering metallic drapes at precisely the same silver-gray as the suits. “I thought, what if we can remove everything from the point, except that the things we cared for the many?” Byrne explains. “What could be left? … Us, and you also.”
By way of instance, if Byrne and the throw starring Janelle Monae’s stirring protest tune”Hell You Talmbout,” chanting titles of Black women and men who perished in racial violence or the hands of authorities, Lee provides strong visuals and adds much more recent titles such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Likely, you won’t remain in yours.
On the show’s final day in February — I was there with my cousin and sister — we had been awarded joyful information through curtain calls. Byrne declared to cheers the series would return in September.
Subsequently, the pandemic occurred, and who knows if”American Utopia” would return. Until this one good day, let us thank Lee and Byrne for providing us something somewhat better — a great deal better — than the next greatest thing.