Director Spike Lee made one of the great film adaptations of a Broadway musical, with thrilling rock songs and challenging thoughts about race, identity and the limitations of art. That movie is Passing Strange, a 2009 release which documented the closing nights of Stew’s semi-autobiographical Tony Award-winning show. David Byrne was the frontman for one of the great concert films of all time; that, of course is Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), which captured Talking Heads at their peak. Unfortunately, however well-meaning, Lee’s adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia is a fairly uninspiring greatest hits show that falls well short of those musical cinematic triumphs.

Lee sets up the film with some promise of a narrative, but Byrne doesn’t give him much to work with. The leader opens the show alone, pondering a model of the human brain, the walls of the stage around him constructed of beaded strings that hammer home the theme of connectivity that runs throughout the program. But when his talented and diverse band starts coming in, there goes the narrative. Visuals are occasionally varied with overhead angles and shots of a (fairly homogenous) audience, but there’s nothing like the build-up of Sense, where you can see the band evolving from its individual pieces and coming together for a rich, vibrant musical community. Clearly, that’s Byrne’s intention for this event—it’s not called American Utopia for nothing. But unlike Sense, there’s no feeling of the separate parts unifying, although Byrne’s civic-minded narration between songs calls for such unity. And while it’s great that the show is being made more accessible (as accessible as a premium cable service can be, that is), the cynical con summer can’t help but wonder if it’s disingenuous to stage a utopia intended for The People in a highly-priced Broadway show

It may be hard for younger viewers to remember now how unusual Byrne seemed to mainstream audiences in the ‘70s. When Talking Heads first appeared on “Saturday Night Live” performing their idiosyncratic cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” Byrne’s abrupt vocals were a new thing, and if the group had hit a level of commercial success by the time they made Stop Making Sense, it was still easy to root for them. Yet drummer Chris Frantz’s recent memoir Remain in Love reveals that it didn’t take long for Byrne to shift from awkward outsider to a big head on the level of the famous big suit, regularly taking credit for contributions made by fellow bandmembers. As egos came into conflict and the band began to splinter, the Heads’ last few albums were all but unlistenable, self-conscious art that lost the genuine sense of discovery that drove their best work.

For all its nods to inclusive politics, American Utopia feels like the work of somebody who doesn’t have anything to learn. Byrne has championed the ordinary in True Stories and brought fantastic music from Africa and Brazil to a larger audience with his Luaka Bop label. But his own music has suffered. He used to be more unpredictable if controlled; where was his music going to take you next? There are no surprises here, and maybe such things are impossible at this late cultural date, but, especially when compared to Demme’s film, this seems not like an inspired artistic statement, but a product—or the artist as product. It’s like the cringe-worthy moment in This Must Be the Place when a Robert Smith-ified Sean Penn tells the former Talking Head, then immersed in his Playing the Building installation, “David Byrne, you’re an artist!”

Yet if the Heads’ back catalog mostly comes off as mere professionalism, there are moments where that old investigative spirit shows through. “Every Day Is a Miracle” co-written with Brian Eno for the American Utopia album, proves he still has questions and finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. The strongest theatrical staging hits thanks to the simple metaphor of shadows “Blind,” which comes from one of the weakest Heads albums.

Stop Making Sense came across as a revival meeting that was performed with enough fervor to convert the skeptic. Passing Strange energetically followed great characters and actors and celebrated all the spectacle and intimacy that Stew invested in them. Sadly, American Utopia is an arty, self-conscious oldies show that preaches to the choir and doesn’t nearly reach its creators’ previous heights.

An arty, self-conscious oldies show that preaches to the choir and doesn’t nearly reach its creators’ previous heights.
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