David Byrne on HBO’s ‘American Utopia,’ the election and why he’s not ‘bored’ of Talking Heads

David Byrne‘s American Utopia” is the salve we all need right now. 

The vibrant concert movie, premiering Saturday on HBO and HBO Max (8 EDT/PDT), is directed by Spike Lee, capturing last year’s hit Broadway production of the same name. The 105-minute film features a mix of Talking Heads favorites and songs from Byrne’s 2018 “American Utopia” album, sprightly performed by Byrne and a group of suit-clad, barefooted dancers, most of whom also play handheld instruments.

Throughout the show, the former Talking Heads frontman delivers disarmingly poignant interludes about the importance of connection, community, immigrants and voting – topics that take on new resonance with the looming presidential election. For Byrne, 68, his experience performing “Utopia” was as life-affirming as it is to watch. 

“People would ask, ‘Don’t you get bored doing the same show every night?’ Not that one,” Byrne says over Zoom. “Everybody feels really great doing the show, it’s hard to explain. The songs, the choreography, everything we do generates that kind of feeling.”

David Byrne, center, with musicians and dancers in "David Byrne's American Utopia," streaming on HBO Max Saturday.

Byrne first met Lee at the premiere of the filmmaker’s 1989 race drama “Do the Right Thing,” and reconnected in 2016 when Byrne appeared in his documentary “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.” Lee attended an out-of-town tryout of “Utopia” in Boston last year and was immediately taken with the show. 

“It was right in his wheelhouse,” Byrne says. Like the 1984 Talking Heads concert movie “Stop Making Sense,” directed by the late Jonathan Demme, “Utopia” is “an ensemble film. It’s about how all these people work together or trade places or each have a moment in the spotlight. And that’s part of what Spike does, too.”

“Utopia” features slightly reworked but still joyous versions of Talking Heads crowd-pleasers including “This Must Be the Place,” “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere.” But one of the most powerful moments is actually a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” an incendiary protest song in which Byrne and Co. chant the names of Black men and women lost to police violence. Lee intercuts the performance with shots of victims’ families and adds more recent names such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. 

David Byrne, left, and director Spike Lee at the New York Film Festival premiere of "David Byrne's American Utopia" in New York earlier this month.

“Spike said, ‘We’re going to bring family members into the theater,’ ” Byrne says. “The song itself is very emotional. And seeing those people whose sons and daughters had been murdered, I just thought, ‘What is going through their heads? What a loss these people have had, and how strange it must be to see a white guy of a certain age shouting out their child’s name.’ I was very moved by that experience. I thought it could very well have turned into, ‘Oh, this white guy’s trying to cash in,’ but it never seemed like it fell into that trap.” 

Byrne attended a number of bike protests for Black Lives Matter in New York this summer. (Bicycles are his preferred mode of transportation, and he frequently biked to the theater during “Utopia’s” nearly five-month run.)  But the musician landed in hot water last month when a clip resurfaced of him online in blackface. The promotional video was shot for “Stop Making Sense” in 1984, as Byrne “interviewed” himself and portrayed a number of Black and brown journalists. He issued an apology on Twitter, calling it “a major mistake in judgment that showed a lack of real understanding.” 

“In retrospect, you look at it and go, ‘What was I thinking? How could I have done that?’ ” Byrne says. “But rather than trying to have YouTube take it down or come up with some excuse, I thought, let me just be really transparent and go, ‘I did this. I’m ashamed of this.’ We all do grow and evolve and change, and let’s hope that we can all be understanding in that way.” 

David Byrne, center, and the company of "American Utopia," which wrapped its first Broadway run in February.

Byrne says he hasn’t written any new music inspired by this tumultuous year. (“I feel like I’m still processing everything that’s happening and trying to figure out how I respond to this.”) Nor did he tune into the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. (“I kind of had an idea of what it might be,” he says, instead watching “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on Netflix.)

“Utopia” is scheduled to return to Broadway next September, after theaters are allowed to reopen next summer. But in the meantime, he’s focusing on his Reasons to Be Cheerful project, which started as “self therapy” and promotes positive news. And he’s tirelessly working to encourage people to vote, a right the Scotland native got in 2012 when he became a U.S. citizen. 

“Not just this year – although this year seems particularly important – but always,” Byrne says. “The actual voter turnout is kind of shameful. People died to have the right to do this. Black people, women, all kinds of people have worked so hard to get this. And now to cavalierly go, ‘I don’t feel like showing up’ or ‘I’m busy that day?’ Your duty is to participate in this country or don’t complain. Just shut the (expletive) up. If you’re not gonna vote, forget it.” 

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