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For the Record – David Byrne’s American Dystopia

Sometimes, music evokes just as many feelings as a good book. I felt so many things while watching David Byrne's concert film American Utopia, that once wasn't enough.

The cinemas have reopened! Having been unable to watch any new movies on the big screen for approximately six months, I could not have been more excited to return to one of my favourite places in the city. Before the pandemic broke out, my friend and I used to go to the movies every Tuesday night, and we decided we would reinstate that tradition. This week, we watched David Byrne’s concert film American Utopia. I loved it so much I went to see it a second time only three days later. Want to know what’s so special about it? Read on!

I must admit I’m not too familiar with David Byrne and his former band Talking Heads. The only thing I knew was their songs, which were really popular back in the late seventies and eighties. But when the movie started playing, and Byrne was sitting at a sober grey table in a sober grey suit on a sober grey stage, holding a plastic brain and pointing at its different sections and explaining their functions like a school teacher would share his knowledge with a willing class, there was one more thing I knew: I would love this concert. 

Through his music and through the conversations he has with the audience, it becomes clear that American Utopia is about humanity. Byrne states that there is nothing more we like seeing than other people, because we want to connect with them. That’s why the stage is sober, and all eleven members of the band are dressed in identical grey suits; it makes them equal, despite the fact that “most of them are immigrants, and we need all of them”. Byrne, being a “white male of a certain age” and therefore highly privileged, isn’t superior to any of them. They’re all wildly talented, whether it’s at percussion, guitar, or dancing (clearly not part of Byrne’s own skill set), but their similar looks illustrate that it’s not about these twelve individuals showcasing themselves. Instead, it shows what the band as a whole – or rather, all of humanity – are capable of.

American Utopia is a quite political film; Byrne’s album of the same title was released in 2018, and was recorded while Trump was in charge. The film, featuring both songs from his solo career as well as classics by Talking Heads, addresses climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a political environment in which people are becoming more and more divided. At times Byrne feels more like a school teacher and less like an artist, but his message remains undeniably clear and positive: we’re living in a troubled world, but we can do something about it, even if it’s by doing something as small as registering to vote.

I didn’t know how much I needed an experience like American Utopia. Having been locked inside my house for such a long time, I had almost forgotten what it was like to do something cultural that wasn’t reading a book. While I would have preferred actually watching David Byrne in real life, this concert film was the next best thing. The excellent band was bursting with energy, and the entire concert was choreographed with so much detail that I could have kept watching it for hours. It all fit, it all made sense, and the story David Byrne tried to tell us was music to my ears (if you’ll pardon the pun). For the first time in six months, I felt part of something again.

David Byrne was right: we humans do crave human connection above all else. We need culture, we need art, we need music, we need positivity, and we need someone to tell us everything will be alright. Of course he wasn’t telling us anything new, but every once in a while, we need to be reminded that all is not lost, that there is always hope, and that everyone and everything is capable of change. We just need to take a good look at ourselves and at others, and be aware of the fact that we’re all the same, despite our apparent differences. If only we would all think like this, the world truly would become a utopia. And if this makes me sound like a sentimental, hopeless romantic, then so be it.

What did you think of American Utopia? What (whether it’s music, movies, or anything else) gives you hope in desperate times? What are you looking forward to most in a post-pandemic world, when we can go back to normal? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings – and, apparently, music-related posts as well!

I’m not the best dancer, either.

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