Film & TV

David Byrne Stops Making Sense in American Utopia

David Byrne’s American Utopia (David Lee/HBO)
Collaborating with Spike Lee has ruined a pop icon.

David Byrne’s American Utopia repudiates the beloved Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. In that 1984 release, director Jonathan Demme pared down the preppy New Wave group’s dance pop to its aural and visual art-rock essentials, revealing the discrete elements that make up pop music and heterogeneous American culture. Band leader David Byrne was able to combine his intellectual humor and his fascination for funk tribalism with Demme’s humanist worldview. Demme’s self-effacing cinematic sophistication transcended the sociological embarrassment about white funk that American Utopia puts full frontal.

The repudiation that occurs here owes to the white guilt and shame that has overtaken Millennial liberals — to the point that Byrne has rethought his past cultural globalism. Borrowing beats and rhythms from international cultures make the American Utopia project (album, Broadway show, and, finally, film) a post-Trump oddity. Although the president, formerly a hip-hop icon, goes unmentioned, American Utopia nevertheless responds to the fact that his 2016 election rattled liberal confidence — Byrne explicitly apologizes to Black Lives Matter during the film’s climactic musical number.

This qualifies as self-repudiation because for the first time in Byrne’s career, he stoops to make blatant political commentary in his art. The opening overhead shot of a starkly decorated stage with a desk and a chain-link curtain demarcates the performance space for an ensemble of diverse prancing musicians. All barefoot, dressed in unisex pantsuits like Byrne himself, the self-abnegating gray motif serves to blend — and not offend — racial and sexual difference. The minimalist décor in Stop Making Sense was stripped down, this is stripping away.

Byrne’s former wild-eyed art-student-turned-“Psycho Killer” look is now the obsequious white-haired nice-guy grin of New York’s anxious, condescending cultural elite. American Utopia recalls the old “And-then-I-wrote” Tin Pan Alley–composer retrospective (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Deep in My Heart, Till the Clouds Roll By) but now predicated on recent thoughts about racial, sexual, and social progress. That’s why the ensemble praises international immigrants (“We couldn’t do it without them”), foregrounding two conspicuous lead dancers: a portly black woman and a white man made up to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker; their hipster presence opposes body-shaming and morality-shaming.

Stop Making Sense broke free of such theoretical constrictions, even as Byrne played them up. Its live performance of fan favorites was justified because the Talking Heads had found popularity and greatness in the rousing tension between rhythm and ideation — Byrne’s essential artistic conflict (his debt to Roxy Music) played right before one’s eyes.

I can’t help feeling elated when Byrne goes from the plaintive use of abstract ideas in “I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong” then into the utter sweetness of “Don’t Worry About the Government” — its patriotism sung either as idiocy or a salute to naïve optimism. But as the movie goes on, Byrne’s other hits no longer sound the same.

“Once in a Lifetime” was a great song because it communicated “alienation,” that old art bugaboo, as a pop experience; its 1980 Brian Eno recording was dazzling, not a cynical invitation to enjoy one’s banality. By treating the song as a classic, Byrne turns it banal. The audience of fawning fans doesn’t seem to feel it. They merely applaud Byrne’s gospel pantomime (which was always questionable) along with the entire company’s offensive fake Pentacostalism.

American Utopia fails as entertainment because it comes across as a political lecture about national consciousness. It’s the first time Byrne has used the adjective “American,” and connecting it with “Utopia” expresses a hoary hope-and-change idea: Cosmopolitan liberals want America to be over. This is art-school decadence — not democracy but elitist yearning to repeat Weimar, Germany.

***

Hiring Spike Lee to direct the film version of American Utopia was a suspicious choice on Byrne’s part because there is no American filmmaker less compatible with Byrne’s geeky artiness or more contradictory to Jonathan Demme’s ecumenical brotherhood than Spike Lee. Lee’s show-off graphic style and insistent race-baiting lack the visual pith and hip humanism that made Byrne and Demme’s Stop Making Sense so much fun.

Lee makes it impossible to ignore Byrne’s race guilt. The implicit conceit of Stop Making Sense was that American pop music (and its white European art inspiration) was overly intellectual and needed the sustenance of black (African) sensuality and spirituality to rise above psychological fetters. Byrne’s new post-Trump position puts zero faith in black spirituality and falls back on the specious social nostrum that blacks must now be worshipped as social victims, no longer as spiritual avatars. So he falls for Janelle Monae’s simplistic race-baiting.

American Utopia’s low point comes when Byrne introduces “a protest song that’s also a requiem, a song about possibility for change not just in the world out there but in myself,” with the added confession, “I also need to change.” He performs Monae’s “Hell You Talm Bout,” an extended shout-out to dead black scofflaws Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland through Monae’s frenzied chorus of “Say his name!” Monae ignorantly had included Emmett Till and Amadou Diallo in her litany. The perverse idea to make all these figures into folk heroes is confirmed by Spike Lee’s use of funeral photos and mothers in grieving poses, followed by And Too Many More in blood-red letters — and Byrne irrationally goes along with the ruse.

Apparently, Byrne forgot the general point of an earlier song, “Blind,” where the ironic line “all in the name of democracy” spoke for itself. He cheapens his own art — and disconnects from the brilliant, brave effrontery of Talking Heads’ punk rock.

Patronizing politics continue with a tribute to Colin Kaepernick (Byrne’s troupe all taking a knee, seemingly ignorant of Kaepernick’s career opportunism). And Byrne’s most pathetic moment occurs during a get-out-the-vote speech when he looks disappointed at the enthusiasm of a cheering 57-year-old fan. (He obviously wants approving kids who just are not his audience.)

Lee finally breaks the fourth wall of Byrne’s theatrical stunt when the show ends with the lousy “Road to Nowhere,” a Stephen Colbert (yuppie scum) idea of rock and roll. (Personal note: I had decamped from the Talking Heads bandwagon with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues and its pseudo-gospel track “Slippery People” yet still regret not buying the Robert Rauschenberg edition when it was cheap.) On this number, Lee shoots a Broadway theater full of middle-aged white folks who are applauding their own annihilation. (“You better believe it!” Byrne yelps.) It’s a horrible art-snob song, not welcoming and spirited like August Darnell/Kid Creole’s “The Lifeboat Party,” but smirky and nihilistic. Partisan Byrne wants Talking Heads’ mostly white fans to apologize for their existence.

I fondly remember a promotional interview in which Byrne, asked about his next project, announced, “I am trying to get rid of the racism instilled in me by society.” But I never imagined this multicultural, ingenious dilettante loner would be so easily swayed by political fashion that he would dismiss the world-changing cultural appropriation of the still-stunning “I Zimbra” and try to pass it off as “nonsense” or that he would fall back on such insipid James Baldwin bromides as “I believe we can do something with this country that hasn’t been done before.” Didn’t the Talking Heads already accomplish that on their spectacular, wimpy yet wondrous cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”?

American Utopia amounts to a tent revival for hipsters who no longer believe in God or America.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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