I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.
I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.
American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.
After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.
Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.