Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Unsung!: True Stories

This here’s a song about people like us…

David Byrne’s first foray into narrative moviemaking (not counting the best concert film ever made, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense) was released only to so-called art-house theaters and was not a commercial success.

And I maintain the reason it was not a commercial success is that writer/director Byrne did not adequately tell his audience what the hell his film actually was. Byrne assembled a pile of his favorite tabloid stories from the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News and then imagined that all the stories had occurred in the same small Texas town. This is an inspired concept, but except for a brief scene in which Byrne encounters two teenagers laughing it up about tabloid headlines in a shopping mall bookstore, the concept is never explained. The film was also poorly marketed. Take a look at the trailer:

Also, reviewers mistook Byrne’s deadpan narration for condescension and mocking, but this could not be further from the truth. Though much of the narration is dry and funny, I do not think Byrne looks down upon these people at all. His empathy with even the strangest of them is what forms the big heart of the film. Having John Goodman as his lead actor helps too.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF (Hold on to your hats): An unnamed narrator (David Byrne) serves as our guide as we visit Virgil, Texas on the eve of their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Specialness. Louis Fyne (John Goodman) is a lonely, single man who advertises on television for a wife. Earl Culver (Spaulding Gray) is mayor of the town; he has not directly spoken to his wife (Annie McEnroe) in twenty years. A local preacher (John Inge) leads a church preaching a gospel of popular conspiracy theories. Many in the town enjoy karaoke night at a local bar; here we meet the Lying Woman (Jo Anne Harvey), who cannot tell the truth; the Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who dreams of a world filled with stuffed animals and the color pink; and Ramon (Tito Larriva), whose fillings pick up radio signals that his skull is capable of amplifying. The World’s Laziest Woman (Swoosie Kurtz) watches television in bed all day, being fed by machine and tended to by a butler (Roebuck “Pops” Saples of the Staples Singers) who dabbles in voo-doo on the side. Will the Celebration of Specialness come off without a hitch? Will Louis Fine ever find a suitable woman to marry?


•    True Stories features rich and quotable dialogue. Some examples:

I love sad songs. They make me want to lie on the floor.


I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks, the color of white paper, and the way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don't notice those things anymore. Only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.


Two plus two does not equal four. No, sir! No, sir!


I'm 6'3", and maintain a very consistent panda bear shape.

•    True Stories is the most successful integration of narrative filmmaking and music videos ever made. From television commercials (“Love For Sale”) to church sermons (“Puzzlin’ Evidence”) to voodoo incantations (“Papa Legba”) to karaoke night (“Wild Wild Life”) to fashion shows (“Dream Operator”) to children singing a capella in a junkyard (“Hey Now”), Byrne finds interesting, unique and most importantly, integrated places for musical numbers.

•    In structure and tone, True Stories represents about the coolest update of that perennial secondary school staple, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, ever made. Notice in this clip how much Byrne’s narrator resembles the detached, wry Stage Manager in the famous Wilder play:

•    Where else but this film can you see Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth covered in chocolate? (Sigh.)

True Stories was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography and Best First Feature; it won neither. The popular band Radiohead got their name from the song Tito Larriva sings in the film.

This film cries out for a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release, featuring bonus features like the film’s soundtrack album (the film’s songs performed by Talking Heads) or a commentary track with Byrne and his band mates. Are you listening, Criterion?

True Stories is available for purchase and rental on both iTunes and Amazon Video On Demand. The DVD is still in print and available from Amazon.com.


  1. Empathy, empathy and more empathy is the thrust of this movie. It could have been so mocking (and edges up to it a bit in the dinner scene) but never crosses over. It's a movie of understanding and love and wonderful weirdness and great music. I force this movie on people a lot and I think I have friends who are outright sick of hearing about it.

    Incidentally, I never caught that that was the great Pop Staples as Kurtz's butler.

    1. "You'll be-- hee hee hee hee... magnet for money.
      You'll be-- hee hee hee hee... magnet for love."