29th Jan2019

‘True Stories’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: John Goodman, David Byrne, Anne McEnroe, Spalding Gray, Jo Harvey Allen | Written by David Byrne, Stephen Tobolowsky, Beth Henley | Directed by David Byrne


I have a soft spot for weird movies made by music artists who’ve been thrown a bunch of money. I guess this is why I’m the one person who enjoys Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon. In 1986, following the success of Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Warner Bros wanted another hit, so they gave virtually complete creative freedom to lead vocalist David Byrne.

The result is True Stories. It flunked at the box office, but that’s only because it’s unsellable: a truly unusual and infectiously joyous celebration of Americana and the power of the creative individual. Apparently inspired by the tall tales told in tabloid newspaper cuttings, the setting is the small town of Virgil, Texas, and the cast are the oddball citizens, who are gleefully preparing for the 150th “Celebration of Specialness.”

While flimsily held together by Bryne’s wandering narrator, the plot is scattered and sketchy, with almost every scene introducing a different town-dweller. There’s a guy who’s buying radio equipment to send signals to the stars; a woman so lazy she has robots feed her in bed; an evangelist who leads anti-consumerist gospel songs; a Tejano factory worker who claims to have psychic abilities based on people’s “tones”. Then there’s our ostensible hero, Lewis Fyne (a career-boosting early role for John Goodman): a chunk of a man with the nickname “Bear”, who is desperately looking for love.

And that’s pretty much it in terms of structure. There’s a vague notion that events are moving toward the gala climax – a street parade and a talent contest – but no sense of how we might get there. And that’s what makes Byrne’s film so exciting to watch: the place and its people are the story. There’s no doubting the influence on Twin Peaks. Like David Lynch, Byrne finds the balance between affection and mockery when it comes to depicting provincial oddness. He is looking at Virgil from a place of pride.

This goes to the heart of the film. American greatness is real, Byrne proposes, only it doesn’t lie in ostentatious magnificence or global influence, but in the uniqueness and self-belief of its individuals. This is real freedom, Byrne is saying: freedom of expression. And part of that is about confronting and upsetting our assumptions. That’s why Lewis is our hero. This burly, all-American, all-man man – his journey isn’t complete until he’s moved from the swagger and the sweet-talking to the softness underneath. “I guess I do like sad things,” he eventually concedes.

In its rewriting of the traditional male hero, its trendy deployment of music and its loose narrative structure, True Stories emerges from the Something Wild school of ‘80s counterculture films that encapsulate the art-pop mood of the period. Indeed, it was with Jonathan Demme that Byrne came up with the concept. The inestimable Stephen Tobolowsky was co-writer.

Special mention should also go to Ed Lachman – now a regular Todd Haynes collaborator – whose cinematography captures the vastness of Texas, a county that dwarfs its humans and makes unique islands of its towns. He and Byrne come up with some ingenious visual concepts – like when we watch two men walking down a corridor, and the camera tracks in, turns, and suddenly we are in a POV position.

The editing is key to much to the timing of the dry, ironic humour (which must surely have inspired the likes of Jared Hess). Take the moment when the parade has passed through, and we linger on the crowd, watching the performers pass and walk away, leaving only silence in their wake.

Barbara Ling’s otherwordly production design is all about bold colours, which seem to bleed into every prop and item of clothing, adding to the subtly surreal, dreamlike tone.

True Stories isn’t a film you sit down and watch for its plot-driven narrative. Nor is it an effective concert movie. The handful of songs are brief and often comical (although the True Stories album did of course include the song “Radio Head”, which may have influenced a certain UK band). No, True Stories is film designed to surprise and provoke, but it does so in such a brisk, breezy and well-meaning way that it’s an easy watch. It’s no essential classic, but it is an enjoyable curiosity, and a vital time capsule of the alt-’80s.

True Stories is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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