Talking Heads has that doomy, edge-of-chaos song, "Life During Wartime." "Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?/Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?" sings David Byrne, his voice verging on chaos.

That was 1979. Pittsburgh's doing quite well now, and so long as oil stays above $30 a barrel, Houston has nothing to worry about. Detroit is another story. What appeared shaky more than three decades ago now seems in a state of near-collapse.

How such a state looks -- and feels -- is what the documentary "Detropia" is about. Combine "Detroit" and "dystopia" (the opposite of utopia), and Detropia is what you get.

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady show things you might expect: lots of buildings with broken windows, scenes from the city's North American International Auto Show, meetings with Mayor Dave Bing. They also offer more than a few desperate statistics. Detroit, the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930, is now the fastest shrinking in the U.S.

What's not expected are scenes from the Detroit Opera House, including a version of "The Mikado" where the Lord High Executioner's "I've Got a Little List" includes the names of foreign car manufacturers. It's a sign of the filmmakers' assurance that they're willing to throw such an off-speed pitch. It's a way to alleviate the grimness of their subject.


Advertisement

"Detropia" doesn't have a voice-over or any kind of through-line. Instead, it offers us three Detroit residents, all African-American, as guides. Crystal Starr is a video blogger. George McGregor is the president of a United Auto Workers local. Tommy Stephens is the proprietor of the Raven Lounge, a restaurant and music club that's near an auto plant.

Stephens is the star of the show. He's smart, funny and animated. The scenes in the Raven are both a haven in an increasingly hopeless place and a reminder that life goes on in Detroit. Hundreds of thousands of people do still live there and lead undespairing lives.

Visits to the Raven are all the more welcome after we see McGregor conduct a meeting with his workers over how to respond to demands from American Axle for severe wage cuts (e.g., from $14.35 per hour to $11). The workers unanimously agree to reject the demands. We learn the plant gets closed.

But what if "Detropia" is actually a conflation of Detroit and utopia? Obviously, that would be a stretch. Still, without overdoing it, the filmmakers inject several notes of optimism into the final portion of the documentary.

'detropia'

* * ½

Rating: Not rated
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Running time: 1 hour,
26 minutes