American Utopia

David Byrne's Musical Heals our Nation's Psyche

In this video, our film critic Terry Ebinger talks about Spike Lee’s film American Utopia, an exploration of our longing for community.  In this wonderful collaboration, Talking Heads composer David Byrne gives an energy packed performance—with musicians carrying their instruments at the same time as they are singing and dancing.  He then leads us on a journey through America’s moral landscape, exploring our notions of home and identity.   

As Brian Tellerico said on RogerEbert.com:

Thirty-six years ago, Byrne and the Talking Heads made one of the best concert films of all time in Jonathan Demme’s landmark “Stop Making Sense.” It feels like such a gift to get this bookend in 2020 when we often feel like we’re further apart than ever. Nothing makes sense anymore. And here comes David Byrne, a man examining connection and the individual role in community through his incredible music, staging it in a way that reminds us that human expression is our most valuable commodity.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley compared Byrne to Mr. Rogers for his ability to soothe our wounded souls and bolster our sense of belonging:

Won’t you be his neighbor?

David Byrne doesn’t actually make that request in “American Utopia,” his cloud-sweeping upper of a touring show, which opened on Broadway at the Hudson Theater on Sunday. Yet when the silvery, gray-suited pop star poses another musical question — “Will you breathe with me?” — you may find yourself thinking of the theme song of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Terry Ebinger shows why this film has been called “a joyous blend of song, dance, and revival meeting.”  

“Songs are strung together to form a character or tell a story,” she says. “These are songs with a new political context.  As Byrne himself has said, ‘The days are over when you do a piece just for entertainment.’  So watch the word play, the repeating images, and take note of the songs that make you get up and dance—and the ballads that inspire you and give you hope.”  

Here’s  more background on the film—and a riveting conversation between Spike Lee and the performer and songwriter David Byrne. 

And for an added dose of optimism, check out Byrne’s next project, Reasons to be Cheerful.

Terry Ebinger is a film scholar with over three decades of experience as a depth psychology educator, dream consultant, and seminar leader. Terry’s film classes synthesize art, cultural history, and the language of myth and symbol. Learn more about her work at Cinema and Psyche.

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