True Stories is the one and only film that David Byrne has directed. Made at the tail end of his time with Talking Heads, which had basically fallen apart at that point. Although they did release a few more albums, Byrne and his bandmates had fallen out. The divide could already be seen in the concert film, Stop Making Sense, two years previously.
Byrne was already a huge film nut, and he had the idea to make a sort of Americana musical set in Texas. The result is a good, but not quite great, movie. The idea came from the fact that Byrne was reading a lot of Weekly World News at the time, and getting really into country music as well. This comes out through the songs in the film as well as in some of the songs on Little Creatures.
There’s no real narrative, but it’s a set of vignettes wrapped around a cowboy hat-wearing narrator played by Byrne. The closest thing to a main character is Louis Fyne, played by John Goodman, who at this time was not widely known. True Stories was one of Goodman’s first film roles, coming before he became well-known from the sitcom Roseanne and his part in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. Fyne is a country-singing technician who’s unlucky in love. The stories occur in the fictional town of Virgil, which is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
The result is kind of what you would expect from a David Byrne movie. You have a cast of oddball characters, including a performance from Spalding Grey, and a conspiracy-theorist preacher who owes more than a small debt to the Church of the Sub-Genius (of which Byrne is a member). Some of the best moments come from characters that never appear again, such as one shot with a man who spontaneously starts dancing in his office, a striking image seen in silhouette.
The film received plenty of very good reviews at the time, but nobody saw it, and it didn’t make any money. It’s beautifully designed, as you would expect, with heightened colours and an amazing fashion-show sequence in a mall that owes a lot to Fellini. This is where the famous grass suit comes in. And it is a sort of musical, although no one breaks out into song the music is important to moving the movie forward. Unlike the album True Stories, the songs in the film are sung primarily by the actors in the film.
It’s a series of quirky observations, both good and bad, about 1980s America, and especially Texas. There are parallels to David Lynch’s films from the period, who shares a certain innocence with Byrne, and Jonathan Demme’s way of looking at the US. Demme had, of course, encouraged Byrne to make a movie after working with him on Stop Making Sense. Byrne described the result as a project with songs based on stories from tabloid newspapers—“like 60 Minutes on acid.”
At the time there were several films where rock stars got involved in filmmaking or got serious film roles, such as Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, the Paul Schrader film made with Joan Jett Light of Day, or Sting’s turns in Dune and Brimstone and Treacle. But generally these were about enhancing box office takings, not because the star in question was seen as a real artist.
The film has been remastered in 4K. Fans who want to save some money will be pleased to hear that the new Criterion edition includes all the original versions of the songs from the film on the soundtrack CD, including Goodman’s version of “People Like Us” (the album True Stories has only Talking Heads versions of the film songs.) There’s a new making-of with interviews with Byrne, screenwriter Stephen Tobolowski, and others; a making-of that came out at the same time as the film; another featurette that takes the makers of the original documentary back to the town where True Stories was filmed to see what’s changed; about 14 minutes of deleted scenes; a short documentary about graphic designer Tibor Kalman, whose style was a big influence on Byrne and the film; plus a big booklet with new essays, archival writing, and Byrne’s own tabloid clippings that he used for inspiration.
It’s a shame that Byrne hasn’t made another narrative film—he probably should.