True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)
Starring David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray
I remember making long trips in the car as a child and feeling a sense of excitement as we pulled onto off ramps, stopping a strange gas stations and towns on our way. The journey and these stops always held much more interest to me than the destination it seems. I can distinctly remember driving through the Smoky Mountains and drinking Faygo Root Beet, a brand I had not had before. True Stories felt, for me, like stopping in of those little towns along the way and staying a bit longer than usual. Virgil, Texas is however a byproduct of the strange mind of David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads. Things are quite off from the real world, but that just makes it all that more interesting.
Byrne is the nameless narrator, decked out in stereotypical Texan gear: Ten gallon hat, western wear, cowboy boots, and driving around a cherry red Cadillac. He delivers exposition with a very monotone demeanor, explaining the underlying psychological aspects of urbanization creeping into Virgil. Among the cast are John Goodman as Louis, a man so desperate to find a mate he has a marquee outside his home reading “Wife Wanted”, Swoosie Kurtz as Miss Rollings, a rich woman so lazy she never leaves her bed, and Spalding Gray as Earl, a man who has not spoken to his wife in 15 years but still seems to have a happy life at home. The stories are all leading towards a town-wide celebration taking place on stage being constructed in the wilderness. The Narrator visits with the characters who seem to have a familiarity with him, and various Talking Heads songs are re purposed to expand upon characters’ motivations.
I’ve always enjoyed when musicians set out to make films. They are rarely huge hits and usually end up as cult classic movies. I knew going into this one that Byrne has a very unique sensibility, which I had seen in videos of his concerts, and in particular the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense. That sensibility is translated here into a film that is more like a quirky short story collection than anything overly cinematic. And it totally works. Certain songs, like “Dream Organizer”, so perfectly work for the character they are attached to that you have to wonder if this was the character Byrne had in mind when he originally wrote the song. The cinematography is also top notch, I think a lot of that coming from Byrne’s background in art school. The composition of many shots are not what we expect, leaving tons of negative space, and making for something that could be a framed photo on its own.
It’s also interesting to see some actors before they made it big, and one whom I never thought of as a traditional film actor. Spalding Gray was a quite a surprise to see, as I only knew him through his monologues (you should all check out Swimming to Cambodia). He does a decent enough job, though comes off a little stiff. Goodman and Kurtz are definitely the best of the bunch, each hamming it up in a way that totally works with the atmosphere Byrne has created. Jo Harvey Allen was also a standout as a perpetually lying woman who takes credit for “writing half of Billie Jean” as well as being JFK’s lover in Texas, whom he met with before the assassination. The film is definitely a fun, quirky picture that can be incredibly refreshing compared to most Hollywood films.