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David Byrne reveals 'how the trick is done' in HBO's 'American Utopia'

By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

In at least one way, David Byrne was well prepared for quarantine.

From last October to this past February, the former Talking Heads frontman performed six nights a week on Broadway as the star of "American Utopia," a theatricalized version of a touring concert he'd taken on the road behind his 2018 album of the same name.

Which meant that for about four months this longtime habitue of New York's cultural scene essentially had no nightlife.

"Actors in shows can't meet people for dinner, they can't go out and see other shows or see music," he said the other day. "You go to work at 6 o'clock, you come back home. Your life really changes."

So when "American Utopia" closed in February (with plans to return to Broadway in the fall), Byrne, 68, was looking forward to reconnecting with the city and with his friends.

Then the coronavirus shut down every place he might've met them.

 

"It was like, Nope! Still can't go out to dinner," he said with a glum little laugh in a Zoom call from his home. Dressed in a faded Austin City Limits T-shirt, his dark glasses and floppy white hair as cool-professorial as always, he added, "I miss being around lots of other people. You don't realize how big a part that is of who we are as human beings until it's taken away."

Indeed, Byrne fans from back in the day may be surprised to hear how important other humans are to the famously standoffish singer who took an electric lamp as a dance partner in Talking Heads' iconic 1984 concert movie, "Stop Making Sense."

Yet the joy of togetherness undeniably suffuses a filmed rendition of "American Utopia" that premieres Saturday on HBO. Directed by Spike Lee, this new concert film based on the Broadway production presents Byrne as a kind of pep-talking philosopher leading a large and lively band - each member of which wears a tailored gray suit to match the singer's and carries his or her instrument across the Hudson Theater's empty stage - through a well-chosen set of Byrne solo cuts and Talking Heads classics including "Once in a Lifetime" and "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)."

Inspired in part by recent tours by Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, the visually stark, lushly emotional concert also features a riveting performance of Janelle Monae's call-and-response protest song "Hell You Talmbout," which Lee punctuates with stirring images of surviving relatives of Black people killed by police.

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