This Should Be a Movie: “American Utopia,” the Concert Film, and Extending a Terrific Moment




In the beginning, we squinted. Then we used binoculars. Finally, we just stared at video screens. That, in an overly tidy nutshell, is the evolution of the concert experience.

Christopher Borelli

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MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, concert films divine the end of a band: auteurs may flaunt the symbiosis of a group, but our eyes, through their lens, want to spot the star. Eventually, someone will go solo while the rest will lose their jobs. In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), which follows The Band during their 1976 farewell show, frontman Robbie Robertson gets the most screen time. For one thing, he has a lot of explaining to do: he is the one who has put an end to everything. But it is the way he paces conversations, and — at times — steers Scorsese’s chemically induced chatter, that elevates the documentary from self-indulgent to engrossing.

Contrast this with the other exemplar of the genre, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), which features no reaction shots of the audience and omits band interviews. It’s been likened more to theater, with Byrne breaking the fourth wall to share the mic with a camera as he sings the end of “Girlfriend Is Better,” echoing the lyrics that inspired the name of the film. (“Stop making sense, stop making sense, stop making sense, making sense.”) The story goes that Demme approached Byrne after he attended a Talking Heads concert in Los Angeles and thought This could be a movie, but it was Byrne who dragged Demme into the picture by asking, “What’s going to be the difference between this concert film and all other concert films?”

Lately, with nowhere to go, we have been taking in performances thanks to sets and battles streamed on Instagram, or recontextualized by tweenagers choreographing songs on TikTok, “dueting” their videos to look like they’re dancing together. When they aren’t putting together live shows online, pop stars are infiltrating TikTok too. After debuting their video for “Do It,” Chloe x Halle started their own TikTok dance trend by posting the choreography to the chorus on social media, and starting the #DOITchallenge. Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus has been covering Blondie, the Cranberries, and Britney Spears without putting out a cover album. Now when pop stars perform at awards shows, in empty venues, it feels like there is even less distance between them and the cameras than before. With no spectators to maintain eye contact with, their gaze is set on the camera, whether it’s soaring above them or coming in for a close-up. We’re all craving proximity, and so these performances toy with it more: musicians are six feet apart, but the camera, a stand-in for an audience, can break physical distancing and be grabbed, or come within breathing distance without repercussions.

This is not new, though: the most resonant and canonical concert films — the ones credited with defining the genre — have always been eulogies to live performance itself. Most recently, Spike Lee’s American Utopia has taken it further by devoting crucial time off the stage. The camera cuts away from the spectacle and David Byrne in an effort to challenge the audience’s idleness. It asks, in so many ways, Who suffers for the sake of our comfort and enjoyment? How are we all connected?

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The concert film, when it’s successful, transcends mere recording. When the camera is more obtrusive, it acts like a roadie with a cinematic eye. Both Demme and Scorsese are fans, but they never completely surrender to adulation. Instead, both directors allow their reverence to shepherd them onto the stage, where Demme and Scorsese can showcase musicianship. The camera isn’t a fly on the wall but a gateway to the music. When the artistic experience is centered, we spend less time in a studio being told how a song is made, and more onstage, watching how it all comes together. The Last Waltz arguably spends too much time contemplating with Robertson, but, as Brad Nelson points out, the physical movements and gestures of The Band and their special guests have “gentle, musical qualities” that even lull the camera during a rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” underscoring how that “the lens seems subtly driven by Helm’s hammering rhythm.” Meanwhile, the collaboration between Demme, the Talking Heads, and Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth on Stop Making Sense provides a distinct visual language for how a series of musical repetitions, releases, and returns — vibrations gathered into motifs and leitmotifs — can make us feel something. A harmony congregates onstage: we start with Byrne, an acoustic guitar, a boombox, and some scaffolding but, as more members join in and the instruments come together, the stage is built, the backdrop is set, and everything coalesces. The story is the formation of this spectacle, but the filmmaking accents the music, helping us see it through. Suddenly, there’s an articulation of the music’s effects on us. We’re invested, but we don’t know why and we don’t care. All that matters is for an hour and a half, the eyes, like the camera, always have somewhere to go.

If there is an element of live performance that neither Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz account for, it is scale. Stop Making Sense was filmed at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, which can seat up to 2,703 people. The Band’s farewell show, which landed on Thanksgiving, reportedly served turkey dinners to 5,000 fans. What about an audience hitting six figures though? When Scorsese filmed a 2006 Rolling Stones show in Shine a Light (2008), the director opted for a smaller venue — the Beacon in New York, which can host under 3,000 guests — and 22 cinematographers to capture the live act. This was about filming logistics, yes, but also strategic: in the most renowned Stones’ rockumentary, Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970), where they played the Altamont Speedway Free Festival for 300,000 spectators, their live act culminated with the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, beat to death by the band’s Hell’s Angels security grew. The film’s tagline — The music that thrilled the world … and the killing that stunned it! — doesn’t focus on onstage chemistry. If anything, it’s an effective metaphor of how fans and bands are casualties of star-making machinery: anything that promotes the band, contributes to its mythology, and increases revenue, is fair game. By including his beating and murder, Gimme Shelter capitalizes on it, making it not only a snuff film but an accurate portrayal of the industry. Shine a Light opts, instead, to center showmanship, what draws everyone to the stage in the first place.

In 2015, Demme confronted another dilemma of scale in documenting the end of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour, performed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which seats 17,000. When Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is screened on Netflix, the proportions are off; the film is meant for a big screen, not an iPad or MacBook. At times, even the long shots, which capture the entire stage and lighting sequence, stunt the choreography. And there’s something about the “behind-the-scenes” Timberlake, desperately trying to seem humble, that comes off as coerced. In public, he is constantly on because he has to be, but, as much as he tries to be approachable for Demme, it reads as schtick. During the prayer circle, he tells the band “this show is for all of us,” but he really means “for me.” Compared to D. A. Pennebaker’s rockumentary Dont Look Back, the director captures Dylan confronting his celebrity. But as Pennebaker explained, through the right framing, it also reveals Dylan as someone “constantly creating himself, and then standing back and trying to witness it.” Justin Timberlake is not Bob Dylan. From his early days in the Mickey Mouse Club to NSYNC, his celebrity was always manufactured for him, and he has always been at the center of it all.

Stadiums that host The Stones and Timberlake hinder key elements of live performance, the filmed version of the show dwarfed by the scale of the venue and the crowd. Arenas obstruct the senses, so unless you’re writing songs with them in mind, the acoustics are a nightmare, especially when you factor in all the screaming. This is where the artist needs an organizing principle — a narrative that not only heightens the music but frames it for a listener in the midst of a sensorial onslaught. A filmmaker is the guide, parsing the crucial details and contextualizing it all: what makes musicians tick, how band members all sync up to the beat of a song or sing to each other onstage — insights that even someone with the best seats and gossips wouldn’t pick up on, but would still register as pure joy. Everyone is further away from the stage, leaving them (and us) with two choices: watching everything from a colossal LED screen or squinting into some middle distance. More than ever, we need someone to make us feel like we’re on that stage together.

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No one has grasped the seductive interplay of proximity and distance better than Beyoncé, who has not only filled those stadiums, but has consistently examined herself with a cinematic eye. Since 2005, the multi-hyphenate has worked closely with visual director Ed Burke to film her life, which she guards with boundaries and encrypts in hard drives. She rarely grants interviews (unless it’s with Edward Enninful), opting to mete her brand across different platforms: behind the scenes, during concerts, her Instagram account and alleged finstas, and in interviewing herself and Solange. Every medium paints part of her picture, including the concert filmography.

One of her first collaborations with Burke was the 2013 HBO documentary Life is But a Dream, which sees Beyoncé through her first pregnancy and the dissolution of her professional relationship with her father-manager. Here, she grapples with the role of creator, mapping out her artistic vision beyond rehearsals and performances. Six years later brought Homecoming (Burke, Netflix, 2019), which picks up after the birth of her Geminis, preparing to headline Coachella in front of 125,000 people and hundreds of thousands more online. Aisha Harris explains in her review that Homecoming “reinforces the idea that Beyoncé the performer is also Beyoncé the creator.” Nothing can get past Beyoncé because, unlike other documentarians, she is not just an auteur, but a fan, and, most importantly, the main act. She is always considering opposing forces: the critics who will pick apart her image, and the fans who want to be onstage with her. She can curate the best reaction shots, because she’s seen them all. Unlike Scorsese and Demme, she is the one who locks eyes with crowds at every show. A crucial audience shot comes seconds into Homecoming after she appears on stage (bear in mind that she has not otherwise been seen in public for nearly a year): a fan, in shock, clutches her chest at the sight of Queen Bey. This is why her critiques throughout the film — ensuring that recordings of the choir, “the rumble of the structure, the stomps,” she keeps stressing to her team, translate properly on film — invoke the senses; these details advocate for her.

But as much as Beyoncé controls her output, she can’t entirely control its scope: no one can. Fans immediately film or screen-grab her performances during a show, and, suddenly, she will be trending everywhere. (There will be memes.) Fans learn the choreography right away and recreate her costumes. By the time Homecoming was released, Coachella had been christened Beychella, and Beyoncé’s pyramid stage was displayed in the Hub of the Valley. Segments of the show, like her renditions of F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin’” and O. T. Genasis’s “Everybody Mad,” had already been filmed and shared online before she toured a version of her performance on the road with Jay-Z. In a similar vein, when Stop Making Sense premiered in 1984, David Byrne walked offstage halfway during what would be the Talking Heads’ last live show. It was as if, bassist Tina Weymouth explained, Byrne thought that the film could tour for them instead.

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Currently, we’ve been logging on a lot more during lockdown, because our senses have been dulled. There are fewer people around, much less noise, and scents, good and bad, aren’t as pungent through masks. It’s hard to ground ourselves when every day gains a more dissociative quality to it. I, like many others, am used to negotiating space and noise when I’m out of the house: I pace my walking with a crowd, shift my idea of personal space on a rush hour bus or in a bar, and adjust my tone depending on my familiarity with others. Thanks to constant stimuli, I can adapt and therefore distrust my judgment less. But I now consider space and people in thresholds: too many too close and I’m conditioned to alarm.

Recently, I watched David Byrne’s American Utopia, a concert film directed by Spike Lee and based on Byrne’s Broadway show, which debuted on HBO this September. The 12-piece band, including Byrne, are all clad in gray suits very reminiscent of the ones in Stop Making Sense. After Byrne’s opening monologue on neuroplasticity, a band assembles gradually into a parade. But staging is key here: the musicians are untethered, carrying their instruments, which allows them to convene with each other or move into the audience. This is an extended metaphor for community and mutual care; that despite differences, here in instruments, we can cooperate and make it work.

Watching from the balcony, Spike Lee saw a pattern emerge in Annie-B Parson’s choreography, so, in the filmed version, the band members make sine waves, align themselves as a cross, and together kneel under a projected image of Colin Kaepernick. In Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme gave Byrne free rein to display his artistic range without explaining his artistic and political motivations. It’s taken critics like Dorian Lynskey to connect the narrative of the film to the Talking Heads’ album Speaking in Tongues, which “trace[s] an arc from paranoid solitude to communal ecstasy.” Thanks to Demme’s framing and especially Jordan Cronenweth’s lighting, Stop Making Sense comes off as sci-fi noir, where a protagonist discovers the consequences of progress, that is who suffers for the benefit of the many.

But in our current political context, that naïveté and subtlety isn’t enough for Spike Lee. The director has no problem juxtaposing political messages in his collaboration with Byrne, a film entitled American Utopia and released before the 2020 election. Now that Byrne, who used to “retreat into a corner” during social gatherings, can connect with others, how will he contribute? He tells his audience to vote, but not who to vote for, which isn’t enough. During Byrne’s rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which Byrne prefaces with the singer’s blessing to perform the song, he retreats from the front of the stage as the camera cuts away to the portraits and families of the Black men and women who were racially targeted and murdered by police. Lee grounds Byrne’s monologues — talk of needing to change, of being a work in progress — and thus Byrne himself in a contemporary political reality. As Spike Lee has pointed out in countless interviews, the list of Black people killed by the police had to be updated after filming wrapped, then in post-production, and throughout their promotional campaigns. In an age of acknowledging privilege, how do stars and citizens follow that up with change? How will we dismantle institutions that sustain inequality and discrimination? When you don’t follow up talk with action, all you are left with is complacency.

Before seeing the film, I read Byrne’s book American Utopia, a Maira Kalman–illustrated guidebook to his play (which is on hiatus until September 2021 because of COVID-19). Without the context of the performance, I read Byrne’s work as hopeful, even naïvely so. His underlying message is one of connection, as he alludes to social awkwardness and the choice to bypass discomfort for more meaningful connection and action. “What are those people doing over there? Should I be doing that TOO? Are they like ME? Are they LOOKING at me? Should I go over and TALK to them? Is there a LOGIC to this? Is it supposed to make SENSE?” The film is the practicum: it brings together two bold stylists, Byrne as a quirky musical genius and Lee, an originator of contemporary Black cinema with a filmography that spans genre and register, to see how their visions can weave together on a screened stage (or, if you prefer, a staged screen).

Tom Breihan once said that David Byrne would collaborate with anyone for a “half-empty bag of Doritos.” Perhaps that’s true of someone who never made the school choir because his voice was “off-key and too withdrawn.” It’s admittedly taken Byrne time to understand how to be a part of a group. He has explored that journey onstage and in film, making it more accessible as he nudged us along in songs like “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once in a Lifetime.” Being in a band, or a community, is a tender negotiation of care. You’re constantly confronted with feedback, which ideally tweaks your sense of self and how you adapt. At times, your actions and idleness can hold everyone else back. Concert films, when they get close enough and frame those onstage dynamics, communicate those ideals to us. Everyone is riding a wave together and striking a chord.

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Sara Black McCulloch is a writer based in Toronto. Her essays and interviews have appeared in The Believer, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Hazlitt.

 

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