True Stores (1986) is one of the quirkiest and most original movies of the 1980s. That is not altogether surprising, since the Talking Heads were perhaps the most authentic and original rock band since Velvet Underground. Their concert film Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme) is justifiably considered to be the most perfectly filmed musical performance to date. That film, like the Talking Heads themselves, was birthed from the New York New Wave underground scene, with true-blue eccentric David Byrne as the front man, driving force, and genius of the group. The remaining members of the band supplied a down-to-earth quality which prevented Byrne from totally succumbing to art-school loftiness. Further proof lies in the Heads’ True Stories (1986), and more pointedly in the fact that post-Heads Byrne, while still compelling and clever, has been decidedly uneven in his work, and unable to retain that sorely missed folksiness he had with the band.
Byrne writes, directs, narrates and stars in True Stories and it is his congenial presence which edifies all the quaint idiosyncrasies inherent in American mythology. Byrne sheds his oversized dinner suit for a black cowboy hat, hops in a red convertible, and escorts us to the fictional Virgil, Texas just in time to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Not surprisingly, what follows is hardly a linear narrative. Rather, it is an anecdotal slice of postmodern myth informed by banality, fashion, and consumerism with Byrne as our gnostic Thorton Wilder guide. Although Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, True Stores never descends into all-too-easy cynicism. For the free spirited, Virgil is as easy to take as chocolate covered Talking Heads. Some, including the late Roger Ebert, claimed True Stories is not a musical. I disagree. Like any good musical, this film makes no claim towards pretentious realism. In Busby Berkeley’s musicals, the directors always attempted to mask the eccentricities of the characters, and the choreographer. Byrne’s approach is to romance his characters, with the Talking Heads lip-synching to Byrne’s nine songs via good-humored abandon. The result is a refreshingly original choreography that gives the film its whimsical quality. The studio didn’t know quite what to do with True Stories and, predictably, nothing like it has been attempted since, making it a standalone effort with a texture solely of its time and place.
A young, awkward, and infectiously charming John Goodman plays a bachelor whose life goal is to get married. The “Wife Wanted” neon sign in his yard never seems out of place in Virgil. A preacher (John Ingle) begins his sermon with a discourse on Elvis, and you do know that those newfangled barcodes are going to be used by the antichrist? I recall very similar sermons from my own childhood in the 70s.True Stories astutely captures those beautiful, real moments of unintentional, inspired surrealism.
Among Virgil’s inhabitants are: a married couple who haven’t spoken in 15 years (Spalding Grey and Annie McEnroe, who are quite happy with the arrangement), the laziest woman in the world (Swoosie Kurtz), a pathological liar (the delightful Jo Harvey Allen) who claims Rambo was one of her sexual conquests, and R&B musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples and Mexican punk singer Tito Larriva (both of whom prove that Byrne and company are not Virgil’s only musical inhabitants).
There’s no evading the ghostliness that palls over True Stories, but it is as perfectly natural, edifying, and American an idea as Norman Rockwell providing illustrations for the National Enquirer.