The tagline for True Stories, musician David Byrne’s feature directorial debut, describes it as “a completely cool, multi-purpose movie,” and it’s right: a musical, comedy, art film, and piece of mid-80s Americana, True Stories is a singular movie from one of the most unique and popular musicians of the late 20th century.
And it’s the late 20th century Talking Heads singer-songwriter Byrne documents in this film, specifically the small town of Virgil, Texas and its citizens as they prepare to celebrate their sesquicentennial (or 150th anniversary, for those who never entered spelling bees). The film is a wandering survey of the citizens of this town, including lovelorn Louis Fine (John Goodman), eccentric wealthy woman Miss Rollins (Swoozie Kurtz) who never leaves her bed, and enthusiastic civics leader Earl Culver (Spalding Gray). Byrne is the film’s host and guide, playing a nameless cowboy hat-wearing stranger who rolls into Virgil and observes the goings-on of this town, often directly addressing the audience.
To simply describe the film as quirky undersells and dismisses its big heart and affectionate satire of American life. When one character declares “shopping is a feeling,” it’s delivered with sincere conviction, and Byrne-as-outsider marvels at the mall’s aesthetics and enthuses about its place in modern civilization. While the film finds a lot of humor in its subjects, it never demeans them or portrays them as foolish–they’re just finding happiness in the place and time they live in, in whatever form they find it.
Throughout the film, Byrne also conveys an approval of the life these people live: while these people are interested in the commercial, capitalist, and materialist aspects of American culture, they also find a lot of meaning in their engagement with it. When Spalding Gray’s Earl Culver gives a passionate monologue over the dinner table about the seamless integration between people’s work lives and free time, culminating in his exclamation, “There are no more weekends!” he says this ebullient instead of as an ominous warning.
And in the 1980s, this sort of attitude was prevalent in America: the economy was surging, success was excess, and there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for the consumerist lifestyle. This attitude is captured in bright and shining colors: whether walking through a computer manufacturing plant, watching a fashion show in the mall, or spending an evening in a karaoke club, the excitement of the characters as they engage this new world is palpable and everyone seems to be having a great time.
True Stories approaches its visual style much like Byrne created his wonderfully elliptical lyrics, creating striking impressions while skimming the surface. If this makes the film sound shallow, well, that’s because it is: it’s a caricature of Midwestern life in America circa 1986–which is its greatest strength. It’s a film that also celebrates symmetry and horizontal lines: flat like the Texas landscape, Byrne creates a world that’s flat and conventional on the surface with a lot of eccentric squiggles bubbling beneath its surface.
Working as a more-clever satire than it first appears, the film takes the perspective of an outsider (personified by Byrne) touring a small town in Texas and reporting back what he sees with an anthropological detachment. One thing he intuits beneath the straight lines and surface conformity is the outrageously individualistic attitudes every character has and the lack of self-consciousness they display when exhibiting it it. We meet a man who thinks he has telepathic powers; a woman whose compulsive lying seems second-nature; and at the center, the big teddy bear that is Louis, who works as a clean room technician by day and a self-styled dancing fool at night.
The point is, everyone’s a weirdo, which makes nobody a weirdo in Virgil, Texas. They karaoke at night, shop at the mall, and celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial together without clashing or bothering each other, and it’s an altogether cheery communal vibe of very different people living in harmony together.
It’s a skillfully constructed film that meshes a comedy plot with a number of music sequences, all Talking Heads songs that are mostly sung by various characters. These sequences are as lovingly crafted by Byrne as the rest of the film with a little more visual panache, which makes sense considering Byrne had mostly directed music videos up to this point. It also helps that one of the best songwriters of the latter half of the 20th century was the same person making this movie.
But instead of being an excuse to clumsily drop a song into a movie, Byrne makes the songs part of the plot, used as commentary of various characters’ emotional states; even the most music video-esque section of the film–where a lineup of characters take turns lip-syncing to Talking Heads’ “Wild, Wild Life”–still serves the narration, as this upbeat pop tune relates to the audience just how much fun everyone is having that night.
True Stories is just a likable movie: well-written (the script was co-written by Steve “Ned Ryerson” Tobolowsky and Academy Award-nominated writer Beth Henley), well-acted (Byrne, largely acting as himself, is as transfixing on-screen as an actor as he is a musician, while Goodman–in one of his earliest performances on-screen–is affecting as the lonely Louis), and shot with an ultra-cool, laid-back, and artsy aesthetic, it’s a great piece of Americana from a long-gone era that people who were alive during it remember fondly while those who weren’t around to experience it first-hand could ascertain from this movie the spirit of the time.
It wasn’t commercially successful when released in 1986 but found its audience on home video and has since become a cult classic. For Talking Heads fans it’s a must-see, especially since Byrne shows great promise as a director of feature films; in an alternate timeline, this film would have allowed him to create more unique films that translated American culture as he perceives it. But even for film fans, True Stories is a winning, underseen film whose qualities shine through now over thirty years since its release–particularly since it captured a moment in time and attitude in America’s history that faded away long before the appeal of this film did.