Opinion | David Byrne and Spike Lee's 'American Utopia' is how you bring Broadway to TV

Opinion | Sam Thielman: David Byrne and Spike Lee's 'American Utopia' is how you bring Broadway to TV. - @NBCNewsTHINK

10/18/2020 6:30:00 AM

Opinion | Sam Thielman: David Byrne and Spike Lee's 'American Utopia' is how you bring Broadway to TV. - NBCNewsTHINK

Lee didn't make a documentary nor Byrne a show about police violence or institutional racism. If it has those, it’s because it aspires to have everything.

David Lee / HBOOct. 17, 2020, 5:59 PM UTCBySam Thielman, reporter and cultural criticSpike Lee’s film “American Utopia,” on HBO Max beginning Oct. 17, opens with David Byrne standing in a gray square of light, barefoot, wearing a gray suit, singing in his inimitable, melodic, nasal tenor about the brain he’s holding. “Here is an area of great confusion,” he says, pointing to a pink wrinkle. He indicates another,"Here is a section that’s extremely concise."

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Lee's offering is a filmed staging of Byrne’s Broadway production of the same name, which was itself a hybrid creature — something between a short concert and a hugely entertaining existential monologue.I saw the show live on Broadway in the era when that was still possible, but I did notice things in Lee’s movie that I didn’t from the audience — especially the geometric framing of the performers. The light appears on the stage in relentlessly even shapes, and the curtain, made of dangling strands of chain, is sometimes parted to allow a musician to emerge or to poke the big circular belly of a drum into view of the audience while the drummer stays concealed, except for his hands.

Byrne’s work is about passing the torch to his young bandmates, many of whom are people of color, so Lee’s distinctive perspective on Black identity is an ideal fit for bringing this show to the screen. In its finale — where Lee is most visible as a collaborator — “American Utopia” is about the necessity of confronting racism and trying to achieve some solidarity, right then, in the moment, as a viewer.

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