That means that Spike Lee, “American Utopia’s” director, has big shoes to fill. And he does, with his own alert eye, ineffable taste and invisible but still-present hand. As audacious and expressive as Lee can be as a fiction filmmaker, he dials his own auteurist impulses back when he turns to nonfiction, letting his subjects tell their stories, in whatever medium they choose. In his masterful 2009 documentary “Passing Strange,” that meant allowing the performance artist Stew to weave his distinctive narrative of music and spoken word to deliver a powerful portrait of an artist finding his voice. In “American Utopia,” Lee brings the same insight and sensitivity to Byrne’s stage show, which bursts forth with an exuberant mixture of optimistic joy and wistful nostalgia.
Filmed before the coronavirus pandemic made live performance a thing of the past, “American Utopia” chronicles Byrne’s show as it unfolded in real time, beginning with him on an empty stage (in a fitted gray suit this time), eventually being joined by two similarly attired dancers, then more, until there are a dozen barefoot, gray-suited musicians and performers joining in raucous, rapturous merrymaking. The show derives from Byrne’s album of the same name, but he throws in plenty of Talking Heads hits, to the bliss of the crowd that Lee films from a discrete angle, seamlessly blending in close-ups and God’s-eye-view footage that he most likely collected during a private performance.
“American Utopia” also features plenty of arcane dance moves — the show was choreographed by Annie-B Parson — which have a precisionist kind of beauty, but sometimes look arty for their own sake. Luckily, any pretentiousness is undercut by Byrne himself, who clearly runs a tight ship but doesn’t take himself too seriously. When the band is cooking, and everyone is onstage either beating a drum or belting out lyrics, the exhilaration is inescapable.
As “American Utopia” builds to its equal parts invigorating and sobering climax — a profound, prescient cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” — the subtext of Byrne’s project becomes palpable: With his assembled troupe of artists from around the globe, representing a range of looks and sensibilities, he’s created his own perfect world onstage, one that Lee and his longtime cinematographer Ellen Kuras make intimately accessible to filmgoers. “American Utopia” is just the kind of healing, inspiring balm that the audience needs right now. It arrives like an unexpected answer to an unspoken prayer.
TV-14. Premieres Saturday on HBO and will be available for streaming on HBO Max. Contains some strong language. 105 minutes.