“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories
“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories
FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray
PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.
- After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
- Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
- Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
- American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
- While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
- True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.
Original trailer for True Stories (1986)
COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Texas, an unnamed narrator (David Byrne) invites the audience into the fictional town of Virgil, which is gearing up for its sesquicentennial anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” He acts as an inquisitive, impartial guide to the denizens of the town and its activities, most of whom are employees of Varicorp, a major computer manufacturing plant. He quickly befriends Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a clean room technician who is on the hunt for a wife—even advertising via a local TV ad—and who dreams of being a singer-songwriter. He also meets Earl Culver (Spalding Gray), the town’s opinionated business leader, and his wife, Kay (Annie McEnroe); the two have not spoken directly to each other in years, conducting conversations through their children. Other notable townspeople include Ramon (Tito Larriva), a psychic musician who picks up “tones” from those around him; The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), a compulsive liar who is constantly sharing larger-than-life stories with anyone who’ll listen; The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who is so overwhelmed by anything adorable she faints; Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), a wealthy woman who spends all her time in bed; and Mr. Tucker (Pops Stapleton), a voodoo practitioner who helps Louis find love.
With little driving narrative and various documentary-like snippets, True Stories plays out as a hodgepodge of anthropological study, quirky comedy, rock musical, and cultural time capsule. Byrne’s interactions run the gamut of semi-formal interviews, friendly chit-chat, and silent observation, but we never learn anything about him, as focus remains solely on the residents of Virgil. They are each eccentric in their own way, but most are also likable and sympathetic, with Goodman’s affable, lovelorn Louis as the most protagonist-y figure. He goes on dates with several women before finding a surprise match in the irritable Miss Rollings, who spends all her time in bed watching TV and is touched by his personal ad looking for a wife. The surprise standout is Jo Harvey Allen as the Lying Woman, who spins ridiculous tales wherever she goes, claiming she wrote songs for Elvis Presley, dated Burt Reynolds, and was born with a tail that gives her psychic powers.
Visually, True Stories is a kaleidoscope of 80s Americana style, with Byrne sporting loud cowboy costumes he finds at a local mall (“I’m really getting used to these outfits. They sell a lot of them, but I don’t see anyone else wearing them!”) and others rocking bright patterns and cheery pastels. When casting extras, Byrne requested couples and twins who dressed alike, giving background crowds a slightly surreal vibe. And of course, there’s that bonkers fashion show featuring real grass suits, multi-tiered wedding cake dresses, and architectural costumes. The production design highlights eye-popping domestic interiors, filled with kitsch paintings and cluttered knick-knacks. When not focused on Virgil’s residents, the camera is turned to the landscape, with recurring shots emphasizing the region’s flatness and the impact of a single structure erupting out of the horizon, whether it be Miss Rolling’s pleasant purple house, the industrial Varicorp building (“It’s an all-purpose shape,” the narrator observes, “a box”), or the green glowing temporary stage erected for the town talent show. For Byrne, beauty is found equally in the typical rolling fields and open sky, as well as the pre-fab metal buildings, extensive highways, and rows of identical, unassuming houses (“Who can say it isn’t beautiful?” he muses while driving past one such neighborhood).
Of course, any David Byrne fan is coming into True Stories for the music, and the film offers a range of tunes and styles, working in various local sounds from Mexican zydeco accordions to Southern guitar twangs. Talking Heads perform hits like “Wild Wild Life” (in an infectiously uplifting lip-sync number) and “Love for Sale” (as the band’s music video intersperses with shots of Swoosie Kurtz exclaiming at the TV), but most of the songs are sung by the actors. Generally fun and energetic, the results are a little looser, a little less polished than typical movie musical sequences, reminding us that these are real people belting their hearts out, finding musical expression a means to share both their dreams and their fears. Annie McEnroe’s thin, high voice is lovely as she sings “Dream Operator” over the avant-garde runway show, lending an earnestness to the over-the-top proceedings. As the Preacher, John Ingle talk-sings the conspiracy-theorist church jam “Puzzling Evidence” with a full backing choir and a backdrop of mysterious found footage videos. Influential gospel musician Pops Stapleton bestows good fortune through his rhythmic performance of “Papa Legba,” which pulls in funk and Carribbean folk influences. And of course, there’s John Goodman’s climactic number, “People Like Us,” a country-western-style song his character writes on the side while searching for love, and performs so beautifully at the big talent show that Miss Rollings is moved to get up from her bed.
What really stands out about True Stories is Byrne’s genuine eagerness, his honest interest in everyone he meets. He reminds us that even a seemingly ordinary small town is populated by oddballs and dreamers, artists and conspiracy theorists, loners and lovers. There isn’t really any conflict in this movie, at least not in the typical three-part-narrative sense, but there is a sense of warmth and sensitivity. Even with the slightly exaggerated visual gags and satirical jokes, it never feels as if Byrne is talking down to his characters, or setting them up to be laughed at. They’re just… people. Flawed, funny, fickle people who share a space in this very specific part of America, seeking connection and understanding, and freely expressing their kooky selves.
I’d like to leave you with this small but pivotal moment that I think captures the essence of this film, both its weirdness and its heart: following the artful, monologue-fueled dinner at the Culvers’ house, there is a short interstitial depicting an anonymous blue-lit office at night, seen through a window. A middle-aged businessman faces the audience, and dances, slowly and unselfconsciously, as a rousing string instrumental plays in the background. He flails emphatically, trips and catches himself on his desk, and the scene changes. With its eerie lighting, emotional musical swell, and complete lack of context, this thirty-second sequence is at once funny, unsettling, and compelling. We the audience are invited to share in a private, quietly beautiful moment, with a slightly voyeuristic feel, sharing in something that feels universal, connecting music, performance, solitude, and human foibles.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Any movie made by actors and technicians who know that the director has hired 50 sets of twins is going to be a movie made by people who think the director is a very strange man. And that will affect their work. Even the ordinary moments in ‘True Stories’ seem a little odd, as if the actors are trying to humor the weirdo they’re working for.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“The real world can be seen afresh when its simplest absurdities are regarded, as they are here, with naive fascination. And Mr. Byrne has that to spare.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
David Byrne | True Stories | In Short – The True Stories section of David Byrne’s website has some behind-the-scenes photos and links to reviews and articles
IMDB LINK: True Stories (1986)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
True Stories (1986) | The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s True Stories page has the trailer, stills, an essay by Rebecca Bengal and a video essay on the fashion show
AFI Catalog – True Stories – The American Film Institute’s True Stories entry includes an informative essay
David Byrne Shares True Stories From 1986’s True Stories – Essay interview with Byrne from Consequences of Sound; also listen to the brief podcast interview with Byrne
“David Byrne’s American Triptych” – Interview and discussion of Byrne’s fascination with Americana at Slate
True Stories, A Film by David Byrne: The Complete Soundtrack (Trailer) – A trailer Byrne created to promote the Criterion soundtrack release
True Stories: A Film about People Like Us – Essay on postmodernism in True Stories from Design Observer
David Byrne’s Scene From a Mall – Video essay on a single scene, by Phillip Brubaker for Fandor
TRUE STORIES (1986) – Alfred Eaker’s essay on the film for this site
HOME VIDEO INFO: Criterion’s recently-released DVD and Blu-ray (buy) shows a restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by David Byrne and cinematographer Ed Lachman, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Along with deleted scenes, there is also a new making-of documentary featuring various folks associated with the film, a documentary about graphic designer Tibor Kalman and his influence on David Byrne, and a short about the fictional town of Virgil, TX. The CD that accompanies the Blu-ray contains the film’s complete soundtrack, available for the first time. This bonus is Blu-ray only; the CD does not ship with the DVD version of the film. The booklet is designed as a tabloid newspaper, with new essays, a 1986 piece by Spalding Gray, and clippings from Weekly World News that inspired the film.