****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Jo Harvey Allen, Swoosie Kurtz
written by Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley and David Byrne
directed by David Byrne
by Sydney Wegner For as long as I can remember, Talking Heads have been my favourite band. They provided the soundtrack to road trips and living-room dance parties; theirs were the cassettes in my first Walkman and my first car. Among the weird stuff my brother and I cycled through during our blessed hours in front of the TV was a VHS collection of their music videos, which we must have played a thousand times. And then there was True Stories, a special favourite, something we never got sick of. I grew up in Austin but lived about ten miles from the centre of town. Our house was on an acre of land surrounded by untamed woods; we spent our time riding bikes and climbing oak trees and rolling in mud. It felt like we grew up in a small rural town, and those first 12 years of my life formed my idea of Texas. Some of my favourite memories are from road trips to visit my grandparents in San Antonio and summers spent camping our way to New Mexico and Arizona, driving for hours through land where the only evidence of civilization was the road we were on. As an adult, when I visited Utah I thought the mountains might fall and crush me. In Washington, the trees formed a picturesque prison. Only in Texas can I breathe. It's a place where the world feels so big and flat that I can almost sense myself hanging onto the edge of the earth. What enchanted me about True Stories so much as a child is, of course, its music and its humour, but also that it captured this openness in a way that felt comforting and beautiful, very much unlike the desolate wasteland Texas appears to be in so many other movies about the state. Sometimes I wonder if it confirmed the Texas I already knew, or helped shape it for me. It never seemed like a coincidence that True Stories was released the same year I was born.
Directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, working from a script he wrote with Stephen Tobolowsky and playwright Beth Henley, True Stories stars Byrne, too, as the nameless, benevolent narrator, guiding the viewer through the days leading up to a sesquicentennial celebration in Virgil, Texas. A relatively plotless series of vignettes introduces us to the people and places of Virgil, including a woman who never tells the truth (Jo Harvey Allen), a woman who never gets out of bed (Swoosie Kurtz), a married couple who never speak directly to each other (Annie McEnroe and Spalding Grey), a computer geek (Matthew Posey), a spiritual healer (Pops Staples), a singer who reads people's "tones" like a radio (Tito Larriva), and lonely Louis Fyne (John Goodman). Byrne got the idea for the movie from supermarket tabloids--most of the characters are closely based on articles he read, and the customary stark, eye-catching graphics of those papers had a definite influence on the film's bold style. Like its inhabitants, Virgil is not a real place, but an amalgam of every American small-town cliché magnified to the point of unreality, where gas-station lights are as soft and welcoming as a pleasant memory. It's a movie about dreams and feelings, where everything from colours to clothing to body language is exaggerated to a surreal degree. Technically, True Stories is a musical, but the songs, mostly performed by the Talking Heads with occasional input from the cast (which includes professional musicians, like Staples and Larriva), are integrated into scenes to underline the characters' personalities and inner lives as opposed to serving any sort of narrative function. The soundtrack's lead single, "Wild Wild Life," plays in a bar where the patrons take turns lip-synching it onstage. Another song emanates from a television. Another is used to cast a love spell.
What makes True Stories so wildly different from the dream-visions of all the quirky and hip directors who followed its example (Wes Anderson, Jared Hess, Taika Waititi, 90% of independent American cinema from the early-2000s...) is its vehement refusal to condescend to or mock the people on screen. Byrne took those dubious tabloid subjects and thought about their hopes and motivations, approaching them with genuine curiosity instead of irony. He doesn't attempt to rationalize any of it (how long has that woman been in bed, really?), he only offers a peek into their daily routines and trusts the audience to keep an open mind and an open heart. It's a love song to the marvel of ordinary humanity, the way art turns up in the unlikely corners of the everyday. Accompanied by a gospel choir, a conspiracy-theorist preacher delivers a sermon beneath a screen projecting an avant-garde short film. A roving band of children makes music out of hubcaps and construction-site debris. The rich and the working class and the hip and the dorky all turn out to see a band perform at the bar. In his quest for love, Louis Fyne visits both a voodoo practitioner and a Tejano bar for help. Some of the set-pieces--a mall fashion show, a parade, and the celebratory talent-show finale--seem like they're there to allow as many different personalities as possible to pass through the spotlight. Not content to focus on a handful of protagonists, Byrne and his casting director roped in a wide variety of local faces, among them several sets of twins, to populate the backgrounds. It's one of the few movies about Texas that even acknowledges the actual makeup of the population, the huge influences that the Mexican heritage in San Antonio and the black Cajuns and Creoles in Houston have on our state's culture. In an early scene, Byrne wryly remarks on the idea of utterly normal people planning a "celebration of specialness," possibly anticipating our raised eyebrows. But by filling the movie with non-professional extras (usually in striking outfits, often matching with a partner) and then letting the camera linger on them during performances, each becomes an individual that stands out from the rest. They aren't the amorphous blob of a crowd usually found in movies, and the experience is close to people-watching in real life. The citizens of Virgil could be anyone you'd pass on the street, but Byrne places them in a context that makes you want to take another look.
True Stories invites you to notice what was already there. This kind of seeing the mundane through fresh eyes extends to the landscape--flat, open earth, blinding blue sky. As a passenger in Byrne's convertible, we drive through the old small town and more modern areas surrounding it--a housing development in progress and the boxy buildings of VeriCorp, the computer company that has brought progress and economic stimulation to Virgil. Through the narrator's eye, 1986 looks like the first day of the rest of our lives. The cookie-cutter houses aren't ugly conformity, but rather an inexpensive and efficient way to build so the middle-class can afford to live comfortably. Computers are an exciting prospect; they would help us work more efficiently for less time, giving us more hours at home to pursue our interests. Work means innovating and inventing and using logic and creativity in sync; it would be something we enjoy doing. Shopping malls aren't blights on nature's face, they're convenient places where everyone could afford to shop for necessity or pleasure out of the Texas sun, community spaces where you might run into old friends or make new ones. Prefab metal buildings are a cheap and quick way to own space and put whatever you want inside. Highways, grocery stores, suburbs, gas stations, offices--all feats of engineering, monuments to human achievement and convenience, things that make our lives easier and connect us. This dream would be accessible to anyone, and life could only get better.
Optimistic as it is, this future was based on materialism, consumerism, waste, and sameness. Byrne himself wrote plenty of songs about the bleakness of this new horizon, and life as we know it today is decidedly awful for vast swaths of the population. In 2019, as our guide walks us through a tour of a new mall, you notice it's full of stores that have crumbled and died only to be replaced by bigger stores that Amazon subsequently rendered obsolete. (It's hard not to feel a twisted nostalgia for the August days of shopping at Waldenbooks and Montgomery Ward before school started.) This mall tour also includes one of the wildest and most memorable scenes in the movie, a fashion show with music sung by Annie McEnroe as the mayor's wife. The bizarre homemade clothes, from children dressed as adults to adults dressed as furniture, would be embarrassing if everyone weren't beaming with pride. Watching True Stories now, another thing comes to mind: If our malls are online, what will happen to the Santas and amateur models and mediocre piano players? Will the community spaces of the future bring together people of all ages and colours and economic classes the way a new store in a small town used to? Although it feels naive at best, destructive at worst, to indulge in nostalgia for this quaint vision of progress, it's near impossible to maintain any cynicism for very long. McDonald's is objectively awful, but don't millions of people feel the warmth of a childhood memory when they smell those fries?
It's sad now, knowing what the characters in Virgil thought the next 33 years would hold. Yet it's also a reminder--not merely to tolerate your fellow humans, but to seek common ground while accepting and appreciating our differences, to not begrudge others of their personal and cultural idiosyncrasies just because you don't 'get' them. More than that, it is a plea to stop, slow down, take in your surroundings in a new way. True Stories is infinitely quotable, but I keep coming back to the mini-monologue Byrne closes with: "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 colour of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place, and I don't notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is." So, take a moment out to forget, let the things you know fall away. Look for what's beautiful about the shopping centre down the street. Imagine what the people stuck in traffic with you are dreaming about. We're all individuals, but all of us are singing different parts of the same song.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's 4K restoration of True Stories from the original camera negative, supervised by David Byrne and DP Ed Lachman, looks absolutely flawless on Blu-ray. Any scratches or dirt escaped my eye, but the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer preserves all the grain and slight softness of 35mm film. While the colours are vivid, the presentation reverently captures the way the warm lighting makes the obscenely bright palettes feel natural in their settings. (Everybody, miraculously, looks lovely under shopping-centre fluorescents.) Detail is excellent, holding up in darker scenes and reproducing the tiniest accents on everything from nightclub outfits to a religious shrine. Byrne also oversaw the 5.1 remix, and the DTS-HD MA track lends new clarity and depth to the musical numbers. You can easily single out the individual instruments.
Video-based special features break down as follows:
"Introduction" (1 min.)
A welcome message from David Byrne that looks like it was pulled directly from VHS. Very short but sweet.
"The Making of True Stories" (63 mins., HD)
A brand-new doc that intercuts the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky and co-producer Karen Murphy talking about how amazing David Byrne is with Byrne talking about how great they and other collaborators are. It highlights why his project is so unique compared to its quirky, twee imitators: it came from a desire to cast people who hadn't appeared on screen before and were experts in other artistic fields, and to make art look like not-art. For instance, many times when the subject is dead centre in the frame, it's because that's how a child would do it. A dream come true for longtime fans, for whom the film's creation has long been a mystery.
"Tibor Kalman" (12 mins., HD)
A short bio of the designer who assisted with the intro and title cards as well as various other signs and graphics within the movie. Kalman had a similar sensibility to Byrne with regard to exploring and laughing at the world without being cynical towards it.
"Real Life" (31 mins.)
A vintage making-of shot during the production of True Stories. Everyone stays in character, as if True Stories itself were a documentary, and some backstories are fleshed out. It's a fascinating artifact given a certain grubby charm by its dated film-to-video transfer, but without the movie's attention to colour and framing, it's almost too odd. Removed from the context of Byrne's dreamlike "reality," the smallness seems sad, and the people come across as strange in a less flattering way.
"No Time to Look Back by Bill and Turner Ross" (12 mins.)
The documentary filmmakers revisit the shooting locations and recreate scenes from the original movie with the city's current inhabitants. Maybe Byrne's initial idea to market True Stories as a documentary wasn't so far fetched after all.
Deleted Scenes (7 in total, 15 mins.)
Easy to see how these scenes looked great on paper but ended up being too dark or too weird, such as a funeral sequence. Now, they're almost like stand-alone short films: fun to watch but out of place. I'm glad none of them wound up in the final product. They're obviously transferred from some sort of VHS workprint dub, for what it's worth.
Original Trailer (3 mins., HD)
I do not envy whoever had to decide how to market this movie. An admirable attempt.
I have a confession: I was looking forward to the soundtrack CD that comes with this release more than anything else in the package, as the movie's songs were previously only available on a Talking Heads album in re-recorded versions by the band. After years of waiting, I would finally get it all--the weird little instrumental bits! The Tejano version of "Radio Head"! John Goodman singing "People Like Us"! It is just as much a joy as I expected, but something did surprise me: isolating said instrumental bits illuminated a new piece of the movie's thesis. Each is a blend of elements from different cultures, connected by that easy-listening mall-music style of synthesizers and synthetic grooves. David Byrne is legendary for infusing world music into his own compositions, and the deceptively simple songs here are among the best he ever wrote. Like the film itself, trying to make the music ordinary is what makes it art.
The traditional insert booklet is in miniature tabloid form. It contains several essays, including new and old writing from Byrne himself and a number of his production photographs, along with some joke articles about the characters (WORLD'S LAZIEST LADY, LOVING COUPLE HASN'T SPOKEN IN 31 YEARS!) based on actual tabloid pieces. It's fun to read, and the lo-fi, whimsical approach suits the film perfectly. That said, I imagine loose pages of thin, smudge-able newsprint will set a few serious collector's eyes twitching, so perfectionists: be prepared.