Director: David Byrne
Screenplay: Stephen Tobolowsky, Beth Henley, David Byrne
Producers: Gary Kurfirst
Starring: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 90 mins
When asked to list my favourite bands of all time, one of the first names to come to mind would be Talking Heads. And yet they are also a band who I can easily understand people not connecting with. Although their oeuvre takes in a wide variety of sounds, frontman David Byrne’s particular approach can just as easily alienate as it can endear and fascinate. Not everyone can find an entry point amongst songs about paper, buildings and psychotic murderers whose crimes are inspired by a perceived lack of civility in others. But to some, myself included, this unforced eccentricity is pure catnip, especially when backed by a band that make it all so damn danceable. By 1981, Talking Heads’ unique appeal crossed over into the mainstream with the honest-to-goodness proper hit Once in a Lifetime, an astonishing single which might just be the best song of the whole decade. By 1984 they also had a critical and commercial success in cinemas with the Jonathan Demme directed concert movie Stop Making Sense, widely and correctly hailed as one of the finest, if not THE finest, examples of this subgenre of film (in my head it constantly vies for pole position with Scorsese’s The Last Waltz).
After this critical and commercial peak, Talking Heads carved out a slightly more accessible if still idiosyncratic path with the upbeat, uncluttered pop of the Little Creatures album which spawned two more hits in the joyous And She Was and the top ten smash Road to Nowhere but Byrne’s desire to try new things was still strong and with the success of Stop Making Sense still resounding he had the leverage to get his own directorial effort off the ground. Byrne had been collecting clippings of bizarre newspaper stories from tabloids while the band had been on tour and worked up an idea about a small town where all of the oddball characters in these far-fetched articles lived in close proximity. Byrne shared his idea with screenwriter Beth Henley and actor Stephen Tobolowsky (known to most as the annoying insurance agent Ned Ryerson who was so memorably punched-out by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day) and asked them to write a screenplay. Tobolowsky knew that Texas was coming up on its sesquicentennial celebration so he and Henley used this as a framework to pull together all the threads, setting their story in the fictional Texas town of Virgil as its people prepare for the festivities. Byrne kept this framework but entirely rewrote the screenplay, although he credited Tobolowsky and Henley before himself in the writing credits. This seems like a generous but apt move, since Tobolowsky and Henley’s framework plays a crucial part in giving shape and direction to what could easily have devolved into a series of wayward sketches.
It’s fair to say that True Stories, like Talking Heads themselves, is an acquired taste but one which is likely to charm the socks off those who engage with its peculiar appeal. Others will likely be perplexed, bored or irritated. Some may even share the opinion of a handful of critics at the time of True Stories release who felt that the film was patronising and mean-spirited. While I can fully understand some viewers not enjoying True Stories, the latter claim is way off the mark as the film never gives us reason to believe that Byrne is looking down on the comically exaggerated characters that populate his fictional town. Sure, we laugh at their unusual ways but never with an extended digit of unforgiving mockery. The film’s cast, even those with comparatively little screentime, bring out the humanity of their creations. What could have been oppressively quirky in the hands of another filmmaker emerges as endearingly recognisable when channelled through Byrne’s complete sincerity. Taking on the role of onscreen narrator, Byrne wanders the streets and mingles with the locals, finding beauty in the simplest of things and showing respect to even that which he cannot comprehend. A phrase used in one of the extra features on this new Criterion release of the film hits the nail on the head: “reverential bewilderment.”
True Stories‘ cast is a major asset in achieving its appealingly measured tone. Byrne specifically set out to ensure no-one too well-known was cast in order to maintain a sense of semi-documentary realism but film buffs will recognise several stellar character actors among the ensemble such as John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz and Spalding Gray. While some play their roles slightly bigger than others, none of these characters cross the line into being grotesques. Jo Harvey Allen’s turn as a compulsive liar, for instance, hints at a deep-seated need for attention that causes her to offer uninvited interjections during a church sermon (a sequence which, like much of Allen’s dialogue, was written by herself) while Alix Elias’s ‘Cute Woman’ seems genuinely unable to control her obsession with all things sweet and fluffy, to the point where she feels compelled to invade a parade of babies being wheeled in pushchairs by their mothers. The clear standout is Goodman, whose matrimony-seeking romantic Louis “The Bear” Fyne gives True Stories the closest thing it has to a main plot. Louis’s quest to find someone to settle down and share his life with is compellingly amusing but never pathetic. We want him to succeed, largely because Goodman is so thoroughly lovable. I’ve always maintained that Goodman is one of the most underrated actors out there and in the role of Louis he amply demonstrates his impeccable comic instincts. The one cast member who comes close to matching him in this respect is Byrne himself, whose narration is hysterically funny in its oddball inflections and sly non-sequiturs. His comparative ordinariness when placed next to the inhabitants of Virgil is tempered by his strangeness when compared with the average viewer. He acts as a sort of bridge between the real world and the exaggerated approximation on screen. His importance in this capacity becomes clear in the latter part of the film during a long stretch where Goodman’s plotline threatens to overwhelm the pseudo-documentary structure. Though he does arrive back in time to prevent this becoming too much of a flaw, his prolonged absence makes the viewer keenly miss their tenuous tether to reality.
One element of True Stories that is too rarely discussed is its visual majesty. This is made all the more apparent in Criterion’s sumptuous treatment of the film, which brings out its vivid colours and highlights Byrne’s often simplistic but intelligently constructed mise en scene. There’s a disconcerting but nevertheless attractive symmetry to how he lays out the shots, often with the main subject being placed dead-centre of the screen. There is also a consistent lack of pizazz so that even when Byrne is showing us something astonishing, such as a fashion show featuring outlandish costumes made of Astroturf or a passionate but incoherent preacher ranting in front of a rapturous gospel choir, the camera observes it all as if it is one and the same. This has the dual effect of imbuing the shots of long, empty desert roads with a sense of wonder even as it tempers the image of a woman dressed as a wedding cake with a sense of the everyday. Perhaps the greatest shot of the whole film combines these two sides of the coin to devastating effect as a distant camera watches a businessman, alone in a dark office, perform an ecstatic dance in front of a large window. It is at once hilarious but haunting, bizarre but beautiful. My old charity shop DVD copy, complete with its snap-case from the format’s infancy, never quite captured this elusive beauty in the same way that this glorious remaster does.
We’ve said a lot about True Stories at this point but one thing we haven’t even touched on yet is the music. Did I mention this is a musical?! Embracing the diverse musical heritage of Texas, Byrne fills True Stories with terrific songs which are enormously memorable while never overwhelming the production in the manner of an over-enthusiastic show-stopper. Three of these songs are performed by Talking Heads themselves, while others are sung by the actors. The accompanying album that came out to compliment the film featured all the songs rerecorded as Talking Heads band versions and it is a great and oft-overlooked record but it never sat right with Byrne that he was singing songs he’d written with specific characters in mind. A second release, Sounds from True Stories, collected together the film’s charming score but featured none of the actual songs. Though the film versions of some of the tracks have surfaced as b-sides or on compilations over the years many have never seen the light of day outside of the film and there was nowhere to obtain True Stories‘ entire soundtrack in one place. This is a wrong that Criterion has seen fit to right. Amongst the characteristically generous special features of this new release is a CD album of True Stories‘ whole soundtrack, bringing together the film versions of the songs with the complete score. Listening to this long-overdue wonder is akin to watching the film through your ears. It’s an entirely immersive experience and a treasurable opportunity for fans of the film to evoke its unique charm while on the move.
Perhaps True Stories’ most famous musical sequence is that set to the first single to be taken from the accompanying album, Wild Wild Life. In a cabaret bar where most of Virgil’s inhabitants have congregated, Wild Wild Life is blasted through the speakers and members of the audience are invited up on the stage to lip-synch to the lyrics in 10-20 second bursts. The performers are a mixture of actors and members of the public who Byrne offered the chance for 15 seconds of fame and this combination gives the whole thing a wonderful sense of spontaneity. The sequence worked so well that it was lifted from the film as the song’s music video, for which it won an MTV award. The other songs performed by Talking Heads have a more straightforward presentation. Love for Sale, the film’s big rock number, appears as a music video crossed with an advertisement with the band themselves performing the track, intercut with a running commentary by Swoosie Kurtz’s ‘Lazy Woman’ as she flicks channels on TV. The gorgeous ballad City of Dreams appears over the film’s closing credits, a suitably cinematic but not overwhelmingly epic closer.
While I love the Talking Heads album of True Stories, for the most part the songs from the film work best when performed by those for whom they were written. The one exception is Radio Head, the album’s second single and a track which is now most famous for being the song after which Radiohead rechristened themselves. An infectious, jaunty Tex-Mex ditty, Radio Head has a looser, thinner sound when performed by Tito Larriva, which fits the character but renders the song more shapeless. Elsewhere however, the songs come fully to life on the screen. Annie McEnroe’s ethereal croon on Dream Operator gives the song a dreamlike quality missing from the Talking Heads version, John Ingle makes for a terrifically throaty figurehead on the ecstatic gospel of Puzzlin’ Evidence and John Goodman brings an authentic vulnerability to the country heartbreak of People Like Us. Perhaps the most demonstrative example of how the songs work best in their film equivalents is the Hey Now sequence. As performed by Talking Heads, Hey Now sounds like a wilfully simplistic, underwritten curio. As performed by a group of young children who pass through the film on their way to some other destination, it feels like a glorious improvised chant.
With True Stories, David Byrne created a film immediately destined for cult status and this Criterion release finally gives it the presentation it so richly deserves. Packaging the film with the hitherto unavailable complete soundtrack is a masterstroke as it provides fans with a complete True Stories kit for use anywhere from on a crowded train to under a duvet in front of a big TV with a glass of wine. As I’ve already said, the film may not be for everyone but those for whom it is will revel in its soothing, celebratory uniqueness. WARNING: do not watch in a double feature with Stop Making Sense. You may just blow a joy fuse!
True Stories is released on Blu-ray by Criterion on 28 January 2019. The generous director-approved special features are as follows:
•New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director David Byrne and cinematographer Ed Lachman, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, supervised by Byrne
•New documentary about the film’s production, featuring members of the cast and crew
•CD with 23 songs, containing the film’s complete soundtrack, compiled here for the first time
•Real Life (1986), a short documentary by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel made on the set of the film
•No Time to Look Back, a new homage to Virgil, Texas, the fictional town where True Stories is set
•New programme about designer Tibor Kalman and his influence on Byrne and role in the film, featuring Byrne and Kalman’s wife, artist Maira Kalman
•An essay by critic Rebecca Bengal, along with new pieces by journalist and author Joe Nick Patoski and Byrne, a 1986 piece by actor Spalding Gray on the film’s production, some of the tabloid stories that inspired the film and a selection of Byrne’s pre-production photography and writing about the film’s visual motifs