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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that David Byrne's American Utopia is a concert film of the Broadway show of the same name. American Utopia is not a traditional musical, because it has no plot, but a theatrical concert featuring songs from throughout Byrne's career as a solo artist and with his former band, Talking Heads. The music is new wave pop with elements of South American and African music woven in. Byrne is accompanied by an international 10-person band who perform live music and choreography with him on stage. The movie is directed by Spike Lee, who mixes theatrical elements from the performance -- like the live audience, headset microphones, and set changes -- with more traditional film elements like close-ups and a wandering camera. Though it features material from the past 40+ years, American Utopia addresses the present moment in the country's history by talking about immigration, voter turnout, and victims of police violence.
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What's the story?
DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA is a concert film of a live theatrical performance that was part of a Broadway run in late 2019 and early 2020. Byrne leads an international ensemble of musicians and dancers through a selection of songs from throughout his career as a solo artist and with his former band, Talking Heads. The result is an energetic and joyous performance about the present moment in America.
Is it any good?
David Byrne, perhaps best known for spastically dancing in a gigantic suit, is often thought of as a quirky performer. He can come off like a socially awkward introvert who is more comfortable observing others than being observed. That's part of his charm. And yet, what seem like quirks are often artistic choices that contain hidden layers of meaning. What sounds like a gibberish chant might actually be an homage to a German dadaist poet who used gibberish to help make sense of the otherwise unfathomable rise of the Nazi party. In American Utopia, Byrne explains how that poet, Kurt Schwitters, "used nonsense to make sense of a world that didn't make sense."
For those familiar with Byrne, American Utopia will feel like a companion piece to the Talking Heads' seminal 1994 concert film Stop Making Sense, easily one of the most joyful movies ever made. But he might be working in an even higher artistic register here. He weaves together songs from throughout his catalogue -- many of which deal with themes of home, feeling safe where one lives, and sharing one's home with others -- as a opportunity to gently talk about the present American moment. Topics include voter turnout, police violence, and immigration. As he introduces the international members of his band, he makes sure to mention that he is himself a naturalized citizen, originally from Scotland. "We're all immigrants," he says, and it's clear he didn't name the show American Utopia arbitrarily. H's a true believer in America, in the idea of the country as a melting pot, as a work in progress. He truly believes that America can and should be a place where everyone feels safe and at home, in spite of the turmoil the country is currently experiencing. The music, choreography, and performance all reinforce his optimism, coming together to make a small amount of sense in a world that often doesn't.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about David Byrne. Were you familiar with Byrne or his music before watching American Utopia? What do you know about him? Did anything about American Utopia surprise you? Did it meet your expectations? What were your favorite songs or performances?
Did you notice any recurring themes in the music? What were they? Do you think Byrne is trying to say anything with this show? How does the music help him make his points?
How does the director, Spike Lee, approach filming a theatrical event? What does his direction add to the show? How do you think the experience differs watching it live as opposed to watching it on TV? How does Lee help Byrne achieve his artistic goals with this show?
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