Movies

I Returned to American Utopia Every Time Things Felt Dire and Hopeless This Year

The Movie Club, Entry 3.

David Byrne and Musicians on a stage in American Utopia.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO Max.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

Dear Dana, Alison, and Justin,

Thank you, Dana, for inviting me to the party. I am sure the four of us can recreate Da 5 Bloods’ Soul Train line shimmy to Marvin Gaye, before breaking into a “Silly Games” singalong, complete with someone hitting Janet Kay’s impeccable high note. I must second Justin’s sentiment about that scene in Lovers Rock—it’s the moment of the year, made even more joyous by my familiarity with the song. Thankfully, I was sitting here at home instead of at a New York Film Festival press screening at the Walter Reade Theater, because I found myself singing and swaying along with those partygoers. And then I started to cry.

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In the year of the Rona, such an emotional catharsis was welcome. Its source was unexpected, as tenderness and joy are two of the last things I expected from a Steve McQueen movie. And yet, the director’s softer side is in evidence throughout Small Axe, the series of five films of which Lovers Rock is a part. Even in the series’ harsher installments, there’s room for sweet, often unabashedly sincere moments of unguarded emotion. Songs in the Lovers Rock genre feature halting, vulnerable lyrics about love, ones that ask “do you like me as much as I like you?” They are often sung by men unafraid of letting down their guards for a hot minute. It felt like McQueen was following suit.

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Small Axe has one hell of a playlist, from Al Green to the Maytals to, um, Billy Joel, whose presence seems as out of place as those popping Black kids in the “Uptown Girl” video. McQueen uses that song during a horrific beating, a juxtaposition of goofy happiness on the soundtrack and terror on the screen that succinctly sums up my viewing experiences in 2020. I often wrapped myself in the cradling bosom of all things musical while the timely and troubling dramas and documentaries I reviewed kicked my teeth in. My Top 10 list bears that out:

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1. American Utopia
2. Da 5 Bloods
3. Small Axe: Lovers Rock
4. Nomadland
5. Hamilton
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
7. His House
8. Time
9. The Old Guard
10. The Truth

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In another year, American Utopia might have been a bit further down on this list. But I kept returning to this film in moments when I felt most dire and helpless. I am not one to watch a movie multiple times in a short period—once is usually enough for me, even if I like it. But I’ve watched Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s Broadway show four times already. In fact, it’s playing on the TV behind me as I write this.

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How can you resist a movie that kind of looks like an episode of Zoom with grown-ups? I am certainly showing my age here, but for the young’uns reading this, before it was the go-to software for guys who like stroking it at work, Zoom was a PBS TV show with kids singing songs while running around barefoot on a rather sparse set. I became a writer because of that show, but that’s a story for another time. The point here is that David Byrne and his band are running around barefoot on a sparse set while singing new songs and a few Talking Heads classics. They also cover Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” in a powerful sequence—the one time the Spike Lee of Da 5 Bloods makes an appearance.

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Every Spike Lee Joint is a musical under the skin, so he’s a perfect match for Byrne’s vision of the show. Reteaming with cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Adam Gough (who also cut Da 5 Bloods), Lee presents an incredibly fluid and alive representation of Byrne’s vision. The camera and the cuts are one with the performers, and the end credits sequence is one of the most wonderful things Spike Lee has ever shot. If I haven’t sold this enough, you also get Lee trolling Quentin Tarantino on screen for the second time! (For the first, see Girl 6. On second thought, just take my word for it.) One can only imagine what QT would have done with all the feet in this thing, but Lee gives us an idea in one number. Appropriately enough, the song is called “Toejam.”

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In the conversation Keith Uhlich and I had about Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, I wrote about how, when I was 14, I snuck into Manhattan to see Stop Making Sense based on the TV recommendation of my former boss and beloved mentor Roger Ebert. I was blown away by it, even though I had no idea who Talking Heads were. Since you love that film so much, Dana, this is a must-see. Even though it shares a song or two, it’s nothing like Demme’s movie, though it does owe it a debt. It’s more like the two films are bookends. I’m a lot more jaded and beat down at 50 than I was at 14, and yet, I felt the same euphoria here as I did back in 1984.

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First Cow is showing up on a lot of 10 bests, including our collective one at RogerEbert.com. It’s not on my list because I flat out refused to see it. I have yet to like a single movie Kelly Reichardt made, and everyone I asked told me to avoid it like the plague. Perhaps you can twist my arm, Justin, as it’s on your list. I’d ask Alison, but I’m gonna start trouble instead and bring up Martin Eden, a movie that’s on my 10 worst list for reasons I explained in my review. What did you love so much about it, Alison? I did love his typewriter as much as you enjoyed the film. And I second Dana in wanting to hear from you about Bacarau, which made my top 20. In exchange, I’ll tell you all about When Odie Met Sônia Braga: A Pre-Rona Adventure.

Off to dance with David Byrne, but I’m leaving my socks on—sorry, Quentin.

Odie

Read the next entry here.

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