Criterion Review: David Byrne’s TRUE STORIES Spins Wild Tales and Tunes

Like Wes Anderson touring one of the towns in The Twilight Zone when it wasn’t occupied by that week’s supernatural morality play, True Stories doesn’t so much exhibit a twee sensibility as define it. The lone feature film directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, True Stories, now available from Criterion, is a delightfully odd concoction, wandering plotless through a funhouse mirror vision of an aging Texas in a changing America. Ignored on initial release, True Stories has steadily earned a sizable cult following and critical appreciation, and old fans and new alike will be delighted by the newly available Criterion edition.

If True Stories feels like an off-brand Twilight Zone, that makes Byrne himself the affably befuddled Rod Serling. Byrne appears as an unnamed Narrator, amicably interacting with the various misfits and casual oddities who populate the (fictional) town of Virgil, Texas. Byrne’s narrator opens the film by taking us from the dawn of life on earth to the dawn of civilization, his affectless, vaguely cheerful intonations sketching the tangled miasma of feuds and wars that birthed Texas. True Stories is a movie about strange people living small lives, and the opening of the film only underlines just how small those lives are against the sweep of history, and how much strangeness needed to occur before any of them arrived.

With his angular features and stoic expressions, Byrne often seems like a silent film star who somehow stumbled into sound, a comparison he seems to invite when he recreates a Buster Keaton gag and wanders into a film screen at the start of the film. Decked out in pastel-painted cowboy outfits, offering childish wonder at the most benign or even unsightly of 20th century America’s features, like music always playing at the mall, or rows of abandoned suburban households, Byrne often comes across more like an easily impressed alien visitor astonished by what these strange humans have gotten up to.

The various stories and vignettes that form True Stories are framed around the town of Virgil’s upcoming celebration of the town’s 150th anniversary (this framing device, and a couple of stray lines, are all that remain of the script prepared by the great Stephen Tobolowsky and Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley). The closest thing the film has to a protagonist (besides Byrne himself) is John Goodman as Louis Frye, a self-described “dancing fool” who is desperate to find a good woman to settle down with. Goodman had just done Revenge of the Nerds and was about a year out from Raising Arizona, yet even so fresh into his career it’s clear that this is a megawatt talent. Much of True Stories toes the line between honest affection and smirking mockery, but the Louis Frye storyline obliterates that line. Goodman is such an open, aching heart in this film that you can’t help but feel for the guy, both in his hope and in his hurt.

Goodman also doubles as a straight man for some of the other stories that carry throughout the film. Let’s see, there’s a pathological liar (Jo Harvey Allen) who keeps popping up with one tall tale or another (including having a torrid affair with “the real Rambo” while serving as a nurse during Vietnam); there’s a cool crooner named Ramon (Tito Larriva) who claims to be able to read people’s auras and see their futures; town leader Earl Culver (Spalding Gray [yes, that one]) who has not spoken to his wife Kay (Annie McEnroe) in years despite living apparently completely amicably together; a conspiracy theorist preacher (John Ingle); and a woman so wealthy she never feels the need to leave her bed (Swoosie Kurtz) and her assistant (Pops Staples) who doubles as a friendly neighborhood voodoo priest.

Goodman and Byrne’s characters, plus the countdown to Virgil’s big celebration, provide some degree of linkage between the various subplots and sidestories, but more often than not True Stories is content to float from incident to incident, from one mundane bit of strangeness to the next. Cinematographer Edward Lachman was primarily known for his documentary work prior this film (he’d go on to lens everything from The Limey to The Virgin Suicides to Carol), and here he shoots the candy-colored pastels of Byrne’s imaginary Texas in a way that makes Virgil feel both familiar and abstract. Byrne’s script is laced with quietly hilarious zingers or delightfully befuddling asides, combining with the music to form a reality that’s nudged just a couple spots off from our own.

Oh yeah, the music. There’s something almost willfully perverse about Byrne and his Talking Heads bandmates recording an album’s worth of new material for the movie, while at the height of their creative and commercial powers (True Stories got bankrolled off the surprising commercial and critical success of Stop Making Sense), only to have most of it delivered by non-singers and actors. The numbers appear impromptu, unbidden, delivered by everyone from Staples during a casual bit of voodoo ritual to a band of kids who wander into frame with homemade instruments (or are they weapons?) to croon one tune.

At other points, the Talking Heads deliver the music themselves in the form of music video-esque scenes (or, in one case, a straight-up music video) interwoven with the film. At one point, a line of people, including Goodman, run up to a microphone to lip synch along to “Wild, Wild Life.” This scene was used as the music video for that song, aired to great success on MTV. Later, Kurtz’s character predicts Beavis and Butt-Head as her jokes and comments play over the music video for “Love for Sale.”

So what’s to stop True Stories from feeling like just a grab-bag of scenes, or a collection of music videos (barely) strung together? Unlike, say, a Wes Anderson, Byrne doesn’t build an impressionistic landscape so that he can then tell a narrative within it. He seems content instead to just study the landscape. It’s an odd, precious tone to maintain, but the short, often-very-sweet True Stories pulls it off. Byrne’s camera roams around his sets, finding the strange pockets of beauty and wonder within the daily trudges of life, the minute expressions of eccentricity that define one place apart from another. Byrne is just as adept at capturing the outsider’s perspective on the world as someone like Tim Burton, but rather than recoil in horror and disgust from the ordinary, Byrne’s narrator (and presumably the man himself) finds ways to make the mundane magical, the ugly beautiful, and the small and strange seem grand and wondrous after all.

Criterion has lavished the film with love for this new package, with the shining, gorgeous transfer accompanied with the film’s complete soundtrack (first time for that!) and a cleverly designed booklet containing both new and contemporary essays about the film and Byrne.

The disc also comes with multiple documentaries, including a new one that digs into the production of the film with new interviews from the creative team (including Toblowsky).

Real Stories is purposefully slight and willfully strange, but if you happen to be on the film’s wavelength, I can easily see this becoming one of your favorite films ever. I know that since I watched it a few days ago, I’ve been turning over images and phrases from it over and over again, as well as wearing out that soundtrack.

Byrne made a film to highlight the unassuming and the beautifully odd, and the result is a film that may seem unassuming but is beautiful in its oddness.

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