Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
David Byrne in David Byrne's American Utopia

Spike Lee kicks off TIFF with an electrifying spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense

Film festivals, especially the major ones like Toronto, are never just about the films. They’re also about the experience—the change of scenery, the proximity to celebrity and genius, the opportunities to hobnob and network and put faces to names. If you’re not working them, as a publicist or a journalist or an executive hustling to make a deal, they may even double as vacations, with fine dining and sightseeing filling in the spaces between screenings. None of that is very true this year, of course. Because of COVID, the film festivals that haven’t been canceled outright have mostly gone online, severely reducing the element of travel and now-dangerous human interaction. Which is to say that, in 2020, film festivals suddenly are all about the films. For the time being, cinema itself is the only remaining vestige of these once-communal events.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which started today, hasn’t completely cut out the in-person element. There are public screenings and live talks and interactive activities—all the stuff that makes TIFF an annual destination for movie- and culture-lovers. But the festival is limiting attendance, and if you live in Canada, you don’t have to leave your home to see any of the movies; buy a ticket and you can stream them right to your living room. That’s how press will be experiencing TIFF this year, through a virtual system in which movies become available online for a window of time on a rolling basis.

It’s a smaller and less glamorous lineup, too. Toronto (along with Telluride, one of the festivals that just outright canceled its 2020 edition) is often thought of as a ground zero for award season—a place where studios can premiere and build buzz for their big Oscar hopefuls. But since American movie theaters are either closed or at half-capacity, the very prospect of an award season in 2020 is up in the air, because let’s be honest, most distributors care about acclaim in so far as they can parlay it into the box office. As a result, studios have pushed their major contenders back—and by extension, opted to sit out the fall festival circuit. That leaves TIFF leaner and lighter, with a slate of just 50 features and a noticeable dip in collective star power and auteur pedigree.

Still, one of the many pleasures of Toronto—one that actually doesn’t depend on being there in person—is being blown away by something for which you had no expectations. I wax rhapsodic every year about the possibility of seeing an out-of-the-blue masterpiece, even as I mostly gravitate toward the known quantities in the lineup. And if this year boasts no Joker or Marriage Story or Jojo Rabbit or Uncut Gems or Knives Out (boy, last year was stacked with big ones, wasn’t it?), there’s still the possibility of great films just waiting to be discovered. And over the next week and change, myself and senior writer Katie Rife will go looking for them, like treasure hunters holding beeping detectors over the landscape of this scaled-back, web-only TIFF. Check back daily for our findings. Just don’t expect any scene color about the malfunctioning escalator at the Scotiabank or the best hotdog stand near the Lightbox.

David Byrne’s American Utopia
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

It’s a little comforting to know that the pandemic has messed up everyone’s festival plans this year. Even Spike Lee’s. The veteran director was slated to serve as head of the competition jury at Cannes, but the festival, held every May, had little choice but to call off this year’s edition. (The programmers did release a list of films that would have been there, including a few that have now popped up at TIFF instead.) But don’t cry too hard for Spike. He’s having a pretty damn good year regardless, between the (mostly) rapturous reception for this summer’s Netflix joint Da 5 Bloods to today’s world premiere of his immediately acclaimed concert film David Byrne’s American Utopia (Grade: B+). The latter is an instant reminder of how different this TIFF is going to be. How is it that in a year with a severely truncated lineup, the programmers finally selected something genuinely exciting as the opening night film?

American Utopia immortalizes Byrne’s four-month Broadway residency—spanning from October of last year to February of this one—during which he performed not just songs off the eponymous 2018 record but also a selection spanning his whole career (including, of course, several Talking Heads staples). Obviously and unavoidably, the format puts this new film in the shadow of an old one: Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s essential 1984 document of a Talking Heads tour. Part of what makes that movie maybe the greatest of all concert films is that Demme understood his capacity to create the best seat in the house, not just by bottling the energy of the band’s live performance but by offering vantages no actual concertgoer could ever have. Shooting from different angles over multiple nights, the director colluded with Byrne to amplify his offbeat presentation. Together, the two made minimalism feel huge; they found the spectacle in the performers simply performing.

These are big shoes (or a big suit) to fill. But though Byrne in one way structures the performance similarly—starting alone on the stage, then adding new musicians with each song—the film has its own celebratory, eccentric identity. It’s more relaxed, maybe more intimate and inviting. His band, a multi-national 11-piece decked out in identical gray suits, works its way across the space with movements that somehow feel both spontaneous and synchronized. The stage is empty, save for a chain curtain along its edges; no equipment is visible, no instrument is wired. At a certain point, the bareness reveals itself as an expression of Byrne’s philosophy about the relationship between artist and audience: “Us and you, that’s what the show is,” he says. When the singer deconstructs one song by having each musician play their part separately, it’s not just a rebuttal to suspicions that he employs pre-recorded tracks onstage but also an illustration of his collaborative spirit. Likewise, the setlist itself, which goes surprisingly heavy on songs that Byrne cut with other artists, including X-Press 2, The BPA, St. Vincent, and Brian Eno.

Lee, like Demme before him, vibes with the frontman’s conceptual ambitions. He has experience filming stage shows, especially ones built around a magnetic personality; he previously captured for posterity the Broadway production Passing Strange and offered filmed versions of the one-man shows performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Lee knows what to look for in American Utopia (he keys in on winks and gestures), and knows which angles—like a Busby Berkeley overhead of the band marching in a circle around Byrne—will best clarify the design of the choreography. If nothing else, the film is a model of live-music coverage. Mostly, Lee lets Byrne and company supply the personality, which makes the moments when he supplies a little of his own sing. Late in the film, Byrne’s complicated, multi-song meditation on national identity reaches its most poignant crescendo with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” (Nothing if not self-aware, Byrne acknowledges the optics of him performing this song and reassures us that he secured her blessing.) As the singer calls out the names of Black men and women killed by law enforcement or in hate crimes, Lee cuts to people (possibly family members) holding up photos of the dead. It’s two artists syncing up their political consciences—another expression of Byrne’s faith in communion.

The artist has become, at 68, a generous and humane elder statesman of rock. He addresses the audience often, through anecdotes, crowd work, self-deprecating asides, and calls to civic action. And he invests with sincerity even the goofier ideas, the ones that made Stop Making Sense so ripe for gentle, affectionate, Documentary Now! parody. The film opens, for example, with Byrne crooning a song to a plastic brain. Silly? A little. But also an instant visual symbol of his mission to get his audience’s minds moving right along with their feet. By the end, you’re grateful for such a loving record of the show, though the upshot is bittersweet: When Byrne and his band make their way through the crowd during the encore, it’s hard not to process American Utopia as both a balm and a requiem for live experiences, like going to a concert with a bunch of screaming fans or sharing a cathartic movie with an auditorium full of people. “Thank you for leaving your homes,” Byrne says by way of introduction. The pleasure, then but especially now, would be all ours.

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