Like Jonathan Demme before him, Spike Lee isn’t particular interested in the audience. When Demme directed Stop Making Sense — still, and likely forever, the correct conclusion to any debate about the greatest concert movie ever made — he notably rejected the convention of generously inserting shots of audience members boogieing along to the music. Instead, Demme kept the focus on what was happening on stage, doing his level best to capture the creative dynamism of Talking Heads as they were still circling around their considerable peak. In American Utopia, a spiritual follow-up to Demme’s film, Lee can’t quite bring himself to wait until the closing number before pointing him camera into the audience, evidently too ticked by the image of well-to-do theatergoers shouting along to an anarchistic sentiment about setting a domestic structure ablaze. Mostly, though, Lee is understandably hyper-focused on the show staged by David Byrne and his assemblage of similarly suited musical companions.
In capturing the Broadway production that became a significant enough sensation that a revival run is already promised, Lee is no staid preservationist. He regularly finds the most interesting visually rendering for any given moment, placing the camera in front of the performers or behind them, sliding in between them on stage or — the most common and effective technique — well above them, the latter a twenty-first century answer to Busby Berkeley overhead shots of humans synchronized into kaleidoscopic patterns. Lee has ample experience bringing stage work to the screen, and American Utopia fizzes with his developed expertise. And when Byrne’s show slides over to Lee’s regular lane, with a cover version of Janelle Monáe’s protest pop powerhouse “Hell You Talmabout,” the filmmaker takes his shared authorship one step further, looking away from stage entirely to offer a more overt reminder about the victims of police violence named in the song.
The use of “shared authorship” in the above paragraph is very deliberate, because, as much as Lee asserts his strong voice and considerable talent, the film belongs equally to Byrne. A master showman with some exceptional pages in his songbook (even if the image of singular genius Byrne sometimes cultivates unduly downplays the contributions of bandmates Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth to most loved tunes), Byrne developed an exceptional piece of rock theater. The choreography of the sprawling ensemble somehow manages to be both cheerfully free and intensely precise, each quality enhancing the feel that the artist is in complete control of the evening. He and his cohorts are charming and ebullient, reviving the idea that music played with passion, joy, and generous spirit can be a balm that heals all, especially in the most troubled times.