American Utopia (CREDIT: David Lee)

Starring: David Byrne, Chris Giarmo, Tendayi Kuumba, Bobby Wooten III, Karl Mansfield, Gustavo Di Dalva, Jacquelene Acevedo, Angie Swan, Mauro Refosco, Daniel Freedman, Stephane San Juan

Director: Spike Lee

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Release Date: October 17, 2020 (HBO)

Stop Making Sense is one of the best, if not The Best, concert documentaries ever made. I don’t know anyone who’s seen it who doesn’t share that opinion. Can lightning strike twice? Probably not, but something very similar to (but not exactly the same as) lightning can strike (or do something similar to striking) after that initial lightning strike. And that’s what we have in the case of American Utopia, which features Talking Heads frontman David Byrne with a group of musicians who are not Talking Heads members performing a set that includes some Talking Heads songs as well as other prime selections. It started as an album of originals released in 2018, made its way to Broadway in 2019, and now one of those performances has been recorded for a concert film directed by Spike Lee. If you know Byrne and his singular penchant for showmanship, then it goes without saying there’s no reason to think that that could ever be a formula for dilution.

“Once in a Lifetime” is one of the most iconic songs in rock music history. It was retooled for the stage show, and I first saw that version when Byrne was the musical guest on SNL back in February of this year. Despite my thorough familiarity with the song, I got chills once again while watching the latest filmed performance as if I were witnessing the birth of a new classic. That is the power of what has been assembled here. Byrne and his crew strip everything down to basics and reintroduce to us what we thought we already knew thoroughly. It is as if for an hour and 45 minutes we forget that there was ever any music before American Utopia.

We also get a refresher course on philosophy, as Byrne muses in between songs about the wonders of human perception. At one point, he asks why it is that we find looking at other people inherently more interesting than looking at anything else. If anyone is looking for any evidence as to why that is the case, American Utopia provides plenty of examples.

David Byrne, Spike Lee (CREDIT: David Lee)

If you’re wondering what attracted Spike Lee to direct, there won’t be any confusion once the credits are rolling. I’m not terribly familiar with his musical tastes, but he and Byrne clearly share many concerns over the state of the world, which is most obvious during the performance of “Hell You Talmbout,” a cover of a 2015 Janelle Monáe protest song that invokes the names of people of color who have been killed by police. When Byrne asked Monáe what she would think of a white man of a certain age performing it, she responded that she loved the idea and declared that the song is “for everybody.” This segment takes the fullest advantage of the journey from stage to screen, with relatives holding up memorial images of the deceased. American Utopia is a call to change for a better country and a better world. Can we ever meet the promise of that title? It’s a daunting task, but the wonder that this show inspires can’t hurt.

American Utopia is Recommended If You Like: Stop Making Sense, the Black Lives Matter movement

Grade: 4 out of 5 Gray Suits