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Laramie Movie Scope:
David Byrne's American Utopia

A unique concert film

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 10, 2024 – I picked up this movie at a thrift store the other day simply because of the talents of David Byrne and Spike Lee. I had probably heard about this live musical stage production years before, but did not recall anything specifically about it, but I knew that it had to be interesting if these two were involved. It turns out to be better than just interesting. It's fascinating as well as entertaining.

It turned out that the DVD I bought was a PAL format region 2 disk (it is not labeled as such) so I had to drag out my region free player to watch it, but it was worth the trouble (it will also play using computer freeware such as VLC Media Player). The 5.1 Dolby surround mix on this disk is superb, which is a remarkable technical achievement because of the need to capture and mix multiple wireless signals.

In this live musical production, there is no orchestra, or even an orchestra pit visible at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway in New York City. All the music is performed live on a Spartan stage by Byrne and 11 other musicians and singers connected wirelessly to amplifiers and speakers, as well as to the equipment used to capture maybe 20 channels of sound for the movie.

In fact, David Byrne, the star of this show, along with some music from his days as the Talking Heads front man, dispels the rumor that his show includes prerecorded music tracks during the show itself. He and the rest of the cast demonstrate this fact, live for the audience (and it is a packed house). They show that all the music the audience is hearing comes immediately from the performers they see on stage.

This movie was originally seen at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, during the height of the Covid pandemic, but from the looks of it, it must have been filmed just before the pandemic lockdowns. It originally aired on HBO and is streaming on HBO Max. It is currently available on bluray and DVD (Region B or 2, respectively) and can also be rented or purchased on a number of different streaming platforms.

This movie is packed with music, dance and other theatrics. There are 21 songs in the show, including three songs I recognized from David Byrne's time with the Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Road to Nowhere.” There are other Talking Heads songs in the show as well, along with a number of songs written especially for this show. The vast majority of songs in the show are written, or co-written, by Byrne himself.

A couple of notable songs by other artists in the show, include “Hell You Talmbout” (slang for “what the hell are you talking about” by Janelle Monáe). This 2015 protest song lists a number of unarmed blacks killed by police or racist mobs, from Emmett Till to Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. Another, is “I Zimbra,” a Talking Heads song featuring nonsense words from Hugo Ball's poem, “Gadji beri bimba.”

This stage production is a bit like Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” but without the usual stationary instrument and microphone setups. In “American Utopia,” the stage is bare, except for minimal bead-like curtains on the back and side walls. The performers are also barefoot, and they carry their wireless amplified instruments with them as they continuously move around the stage.

David Byrne is front and center of this production, introducing the songs, and doing all the other monologues. He is the only person talking to the audience and is the lead singer on all the songs. Two of the performers, Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba are primarily singers and dancers, while the rest are musicians, some of whom also sing. As with the Talking Heads, percussion, especially African polyrythms, are a big part of the American Utopia sound.

There seems to be very little intrusion into the stage production by the film crew. There is practically no evidence of cameras in the production at all. You would only notice it if you were there on the night that Spike Lee's crew was there to record it.

Byrne's message in the film is one of diversity, inclusiveness and togetherness. He also has a message that despite how hopeless things seem at the moment, there is still hope for the future. This is a very positive movie, full of joy and hope. It rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2024 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]