(director: Spike Lee; screenwriter: David Byrne; cinematographer: Ellen Kuras; editor: Adam Gough; Choreography and musical staging: Annie-B Parson; music: David Byrne; cast: David Byrne, Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III; Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Byrne/Spike Lee; HBO Documentary Films; 2020)

“It’s the best movie experience I had this pandemic year.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Byrne, the former Talking Head front-man, and 11 fellow musicians, all barefoot and dressed in silver-blue suits, perform for an HBO TV documentary the same rock concert they performed on Broadway, at New York’s Hudson Theatre on Oct. 20, 2019. That was a live version of Byrne’s 2018 album.

Spike Lee (“She Hate Me “/”Inside Man”) does the right thing in directing it for the HBO documentary, and making it into a glorious and moving movie experience. Spike shot it with the director of photography, Ellen Kuras, and 11 additional camera operators. There’s also Annie-B Parson’s brilliant choreography, performed on a bare stage while catching all the wacky dance moves.

The compilation of hit songs include: Don’t Worry About the Government, This Must Be the Place, Once in a Lifetime, Glass, Concrete and Stone, I Zimbra, Born Under Punches and many more. In addition, Byrne does some liberal preaching about racial justice. He offers an uncritical tribute to the flawed ex-NFL star and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick for his stand of kneeling for the national anthem to call attention to police misconduct in the black community. His most effective preaching is when he’s in front of a version of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” with the band chanting the names of African-Americans recently killed by the police.

In 1983, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, one of the greatest rock concert films ever made was released, where David Byrne was the front-man for the new wave band of the Talking Heads, and now it’s Spike Lee’s turn to film the dazzling and magnificent and engrossing David Byrne’s American Utopia,
with the rocker older but as good a performer as ever.

It’s the best movie experience I had this pandemic year. It’s not the justified but sometimes awkward civil rights messages sent, but the universal joy in the film and seeing the oldster still rockin’ and innovating that makes it Rock On.

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